Leadership is hard. Brené Brown, a renowned research professor and author, tackles this topic in her 2018 bestselling book “Dare to Lead.” As the title suggests, Brown advocates for a courage-based leadership approach centred around vulnerability, empathy, and putting people first.
In this comprehensive review and guide, we will summarise Brown’s key concepts, evaluate her leadership theories, and provide actionable tips for leaders looking to put her advice into practice. Whether you lead a team of two or a company of 200,000, embracing the core themes in “Dare to Lead” can help you become a better, more effective leader.
About the Author: Brené Brown’s Background
Dr. Brené Brown is a professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation-Brené Brown Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. Her 2010 TEDx Talk on vulnerability became one of the top five most-viewed TED Talks worldwide, setting the stage for her influential work on leadership, shame, empathy, and wholehearted living.
She is the author of seven #1 New York Times bestsellers, including “Dare to Lead.” Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and more than 15 million copies have been sold worldwide. Brown hosts the “Unlocking Us” podcast, where she holds candid conversations with change-makers like Harriet Lerner, David Brooks, and Glennon Doyle.
Clearly, Brown has established herself as an expert on topics like shame, vulnerability, courage, and empathy. This expertise shines through in “Dare to Lead,” as she leverages decades of research to unpack what good leadership looks like in the real world.
Dare to Lead is centred around four key areas:
These are the cornerstones of Brown’s leadership philosophy, which advocates for a human-centred approach focused on empathy, inclusivity, and putting people first.
Section #1: Vulnerability
The first section tackles vulnerability, which Brown argues is critical to good leadership. Being vulnerable means getting comfortable with uncertainty, taking risks, and opening yourself up to failure. Unfortunately, most leaders chronically struggle with vulnerability due to shame and fear.
Brown introduces concepts like armour leadership and daring leadership to describe these different leadership approaches. Armour leadership is about projecting confidence, suppressing emotion, and maintaining control. It may look good externally, but it often comes at a huge personal cost.
Daring leadership, on the other hand, is about being vulnerable, leaning into emotion, and giving up the need to be seen as perfect. It requires bravery, empathy, and a willingness to keep showing up.
Vulnerability seems soft, but it is actually an immense source of power and resourcefulness. When leaders expose their humanity, they allow others to do the same. The best leaders are willing to ask for help, share fears and failures, and drop the facade.
But vulnerability is easier said than done. Brown’s actionable tips for overcoming shame and practicing courageous vulnerability include:
- Getting clear on your values
- Having a courageous conversation with yourself
- Learning to trust yourself
By daring greatly and risking vulnerability, leaders unlock deeper connections and levels of trust with their teams. Courage catalyses creativity. The more you courageously stand up for your values, the easier it becomes.
Section #2: Trust
Trust is the foundation of connection. Without trust, there can be no connection. And without connection, there can be no influence. As Brown succinctly puts it, “trust is everything.”
But trust can feel elusive and mystical when we talk about it abstractly. So Brown breaks it down into an easy-to-grasp BRAVING acronym:
Establishing mutual trust requires courageous boundary-setting and reliability. It demands accountability and the ability to hold things in confidence. It relies on integrity, non-judgement, and generosity.
Without self-trust, you’ll struggle to cultivate trust with others. The journey starts from within. As Brown explains, “Until we can compassionately hold ourselves accountable, we will continue looking to other people and circumstances to justify our worthiness.”
Practical tips for building trust include:
- Making promises judiciously and keeping them
- Apologising for mistakes
- Reducing gossip and back-channelling
- Giving people the benefit of the doubt
Trust compounds over time but can be lost in a moment. Work constantly to establish and nurture trust in your teams. It will pay dividends.
Section #3: Empathy
The third main section focuses on the pivotal leadership skill of empathy. Brown defines empathy as “feeling with people.” It’s about genuinely connecting with their emotional experience.
Unfortunately, many leaders struggle with true empathy, relying instead on sympathy or quick fixes. Almost 50% of leaders in Brown’s research failed to be empathetic during difficult conversations.
This “empathy crisis” in leadership stems from problems like:
- Confusing sympathy with empathy
- Emotional illiteracy
- Fear of getting overwhelmed by emotions
- Lack of experience or practice
Brown argues that empathy is a courageous choice and a vulnerable option. It requires emotional labour and getting comfortable with discomfort.
The rewards, however, are immense. Empathic leaders experience less burnout, cultivate deeper trust and connection, and see improved performance across their teams. As researcher Emma Seppala explains, “Having an empathetic boss improves employee performance and retention.”
Tips for strengthening empathy skills include:
- Improving your emotional vocabulary
- Not rushing to solutions
- Truly listening without judgement
- Avoiding silver-lining statements
Make developing empathy a lifelong practice. Start by creating space for vulnerability and difficult emotions on your team and within yourself. The empathy you cultivate will ripple outward in countless positive ways.
Section #4: Accountability
The final main section deals with accountability, which Brown calls the “secret sauce” of daring leadership. Leaders must hold themselves and others accountable if they wish to build high-performing teams.
Many leaders incorrectly assume that holding employees accountable means rigid rule-enforcing. In reality, accountability stems from shared values, trust, and psychological safety.
Brown introduces four key accountability skillsets leaders need:
- Clarity: Being clear on what’s expected
- Humanity: calling people in, not calling them out
- Stamina: Persisting with patience and resolve
- Curiosity: asking good questions rather than making assumptions
Constructive accountability conversations should feel like illumination, not interrogation. The goal is to nurture growth and establish mutual understanding, not incite shame or fear.
When problems arise, curiosity is key. Dig beneath the surface to understand motives and challenges before reacting. Assume good intentions, then have courageous conversations framed by empathy and clarity of expectations.
Accountability feels vulnerable but lays the foundation for trust and growth. Lead with compassion and hold your people close, not at a distance.
Putting It All Together
Brown perfectly summarises her leadership ethos as follows:
“Dare to Lead is not about striving to be the best leader or even a great leader. It’s about deconstructing the myth that leaders are perfect. It’s about cultivating the courage to show up, fully engage with our vulnerability, and do the best we can. Every day. No exceptions and no excuses.”
The bottom line? Daring leadership requires compassion, both for the people you lead and for yourself. It means embracing imperfection, getting comfortable with hard emotions, and making courageous vulnerability the norm.
The payoffs include unlocking creativity, spurring innovation, establishing trust, and forming deeper human connections. Lead with heart, and your team will rise to the occasion time and time again.
Dare to Lead brings a refreshingly human voice to a leadership space often bogged down in abstract jargon. Brené Brown writes with uncommon vulnerability and insight about the realities all leaders face. Her words cut straight to the heart with candour, nuance, and humility.
I especially appreciate how she calls out our cultural addiction to hustle porn and grind culture. Things like grit and passion are all well and good, but not at the expense of health, family, and balance. As Brown wisely notes, “Daring leadership is, first and foremost, about how we show up in our lives and our work.”
My only critique is that I wish the book contained more practical examples demonstrating her theories in action. The concepts themselves are excellent, but leaders would benefit from seeing exactly