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November 7th, 2018
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” – What I have learned from Brené Brown
by Sarah Williamson

In this new blog post, Client Director Sarah Williamson shares what she has learned from the inspirational Brené Brown.

For those people who haven’t yet discovered her, Brené Brown studied and graduated in the field of social work, and she is now a research professor at the University of Houston in Texas. She has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, empathy and connection. Just small topics right? She’s the author of several books, and shot to fame in 2010 with her TED talk ‘The power of vulnerability’ which is now in the top 5 TED talks ever, with over 35 million views. Her new book ‘Dare to Lead’ has just been published, immediately debuting at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. I loved listening to her read ‘Dare to Lead’ on audible, often laughing and crying within the same few minutes (me not her). It’s undoubtedly a game changing book for leaders.

She uses a research method known as Grounded Theory, which involves conducting qualitative research, coding and clustering the data points from the interviews/stories, building a theory about the topic in question from the ground up, and then testing that theory. So for example when she was researching shame, Brené started by interviewing hundreds of people, then she coded the data points from their stories (lots of post it notes!), then developed a theory based on the data about what shame is all about, where it comes from etc. and then tested that theory by interviewing many more people. Over the last few years she has collected over 200,000 pieces of data from interviews.

Her work has inspired me and changed the way I live, parent and show up at work, but in this post I wanted to share just three things of the many I have learned from her work – What is vulnerability? How is vulnerability relevant and useful when we are thinking about creativity and innovation? And how is vulnerability relevant and useful when we are thinking about leadership and change?

So firstly, what is vulnerability?

One of the biggest myths around vulnerability is that it is the same as weakness. From her research Brené has actually created this definition

“Vulnerability is the willingness to show up and be seen, even when the outcome is uncertain”.

She describes vulnerability as involving huge risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure.

What does vulnerability look like? To different people it looks like different things. To some it might mean asking their boss for help on a project they are finding tough. To others it might mean making a really difficult phone call to a friend who has suffered a bereavement. Falling in love is hugely vulnerable if you think about it, because that person might not love you back, or they might leave you. Getting back into exercise when you feel overweight and unfit. Making a difficult and unpopular decision that may alienate colleagues or friends. Owning your mistakes at work when there might be serious repercussions. Trying for a baby after you’ve had a miscarriage. Presenting your work to clients when you don’t know how they’ll react. Writing a blog and not knowing if anyone will find your content credible or interesting….I could go on!

All these examples involve huge risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure.

Brené Brown’s data shows that these things aren’t in fact about weakness at all but about….

….courage. Or as she describes it

“Being brave and afraid. At the exact same time”

From her research, Brené says there is no evidence that vulnerability is about weakness. In fact she describes vulnerability as our most accurate measure of courage.

Brené says the famous ‘Man in the Arena’ quote sums up everything she has learned about vulnerability from her research. I am sure many of you are familiar with that quote and I read it myself several years ago, but I hadn’t really understood what it really meant until much more recently.

The ‘Man in the Arena’ quote, as it is known, is an excerpt from a speech former US President Theodore Roosevelt gave at the Sorbonne, in Paris in 1910. (He was talking about the cynics who mocked people who were trying to make the world a better place)

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; whoerrs, who comes short again and again…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly”

The man in the arena is hugely brave – and vulnerable. He is exposing himself to massive risk and he doesn’t know what the outcome will be. He felt the fear and dared to do it anyway. Sometimes the man in the arena will win. And other times he will fail and fall and get kicked.

So how is vulnerability relevant and useful when we are thinking about creativity and innovation?

Imagine this scenario. This happens all the time in the Marketing industry, not only in the agency world but inside client organisations as well. Someone senior says – I need you to solve this problem that no-one else has managed to solve. Or I need you to generate a new disruptive idea that will transform our market or brand. Or I need you to create a new ad that will wow our client. And then I need you to present your work at this important meeting (and it will be judged).

Creating and innovating is hugely vulnerable! Going back to the original definition – is there potential for risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure when we are creating or innovating? Yes. Is failure an option? Yes – if you’re going to try something new failure is always an option. Could your work (or maybe even you) be rejected? Definitely! How does that make you feel? I don’t know about you but it’s making me feel a bit sick and very uncomfortable.

And all that fear – fear of rejection, of shame, of not being good enough, can be utterly devastating. This massively inhibits creativity and innovation.

If that discomfort and that vulnerability isn’t OK and even encouraged in an organisation, we can’t be brave either. And if we can’t be brave, then creativity and innovation will not flourish. It’s quite commonly said that we need to encourage failure. Fail fast they say! But to allow room for failure, Brené says we need to improve our capacity for discomfort and vulnerability – both in our organisations and in our personal lives.

And how is vulnerability relevant and useful when we are thinking about leadership and change?

To create change and personal growth we need to create a culture in our organisations where discomfort, rather than comfort, is normal. A culture where we can be vulnerable. Where we want to lean in and have the difficult conversations. Where we can ask for help. Where we can fail. Where we can be our true selves – because that’s how we build trust, respect and connection.

From Brené’s research on this huge topic about vulnerability, leadership and change a few things really landed with me

-According to her research, all transformational leaders have the capacity to have difficult conversations

-We can choose courage or we can choose comfort but we can’t have both

-This stuff is really difficult. To make it happen we need to practice

So I hope I have described what I have learned from Brené Brown about vulnerability – how this deeply uncomfortable feeling is in fact the “birthplace” of lots of positive emotions we want in our lives – emotions like love, belonging, joy and empathy. And also good stuff we want in our organisations like trust, innovation, creativity and change.

On the home page of her website Brené has this quote

“Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver”

So can you think of one thing you could do to choose courage?

Is there a tricky conversation you could lean in to either at work or in your personal life? Is there a mistake you can take accountability for? Is there some help you need, that you could pluck up the courage to ask for? Warning – this is guaranteed to feel uncomfortable but it will be worth it!

And if you like what you’ve heard and you’d be interested in engaging more with Brené‘s content and her work – whether through books, blogs, audio or video please let me know and I’d be happy to make some suggestions.