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Book Club: Dare to Lead

For June book club we read Bren√©¬†Brown’s book Dare to Lead. Full disclosure: I had already read this book and really enjoyed it personally. I felt SEEN and really had to dig deep on two concepts:

1. Speaking about others when they are not in the room. There is a section where she mentions that in order to build trust, you should always bring issues TO someone and never speak about someone else without them in the room. I have always found this to be daunting. I like to believe I don’t gossip, but as a manager, often people bring personnel issues to me, and it is hard to discuss that without in some sense discussing the other person. I always seek to encourage direct dialogue with the party in question, but in order to coach I find myself sharing insights about my interactions with that person (trying to help them understand if that individual is biased to action and maybe that is why they came across as gruff, or more shy and reserved and so maybe they are not engaging yet, but will utilizing alternate media such as a blog or chat, etc.) I find this specific feedback hard to execute in practice, although I agree that the underlying concept (talking behind people’s backs) is unhelpful. I would just caveat that intention matters, and I hope if I share the intention behind the discussion then it will be ok to have these kinds of discussions, but I am far more deliberate about that framing than I used to be.

2. Showing sympathy vs. empathy. When I was going through the hardest part of last year (watching my nephew and my family suffer and not being able to do anything) I really got to see this in action. People, quite accidentally, often say “I’m sorry for your family” or “I’m sorry that your nephew has to go through this.” Fundamentally this is sympathy, and it is distancing–it separates you from the subject. Then there would be folks who said something more along the lines of, “Please take care of yourself. I remember when I was going through my father’s illness–it is a marathon and not a sprint. If there is anything I can do to help you or your family, please let me know.” Here that person was relating to my experience, and showing me they were there, holding my hand, willing to support me if they could. I had never learned these concepts in school (not really an engineering subject) or felt I necessarily needed them before last year, but after going through such an experience, I now know: be WITH people in their pain. There is no “right” thing to say, just show you are there to hold their hand, share a book on grief (that was incredibly thoughtful gift from a friend of mine), or just send a text checking in. I hope I will always show up for others this way after having been on the receiving end, and I’m sorry to all the friends/colleagues I may have accidentally isolated or made worse before I knew better.

Our book club session was lightly attended given the holiday in the US, but I was glad to have had the discussion with other folks in different phases of their careers and leadership journeys because I always learn something. Some of the feedback shared was that Dr. Brown’s colloquialisms were too outdated and/or “Southern” and were triggering/hard to relate to for that person since he came from the South himself. Many of us felt that she uses the term “rumble” a lot, and honestly outside a 1950s reference to car racing, it really isn’t a term I know or relate to very well. However, I can see where it could get triggering based on background, or just be difficult to relate to for someone earlier in their career journey or not from the US. I personally found her style charming and relatable, but not everyone has the same reaction to these sorts of things.

The other feedback was that she had a strong underlying principle for the book, but it was potentially redundant. Fundamentally the book’s premise is that being a good leader requires you to lean into your discomfort, have hard conversations, be vulnerable, authentic, and brave. There is a fair amount of repetitiveness of this theme throughout the book. I read that as reinforcement of the key concept through different stories/lenses, but if you prefer books with more brevity, I could see where that style might not appeal. There was actually the observation from one of our attendees that this almost felt like a set of essays rather than a book. Again, that was not how I read it, but I can see the perspective.

Something everyone really loved was distilling and sharing one’s core values. What are the one to two things that are core to who you are, and how can you ensure that the work in your life relates to those values? If you are clear about those values, can you share them with the folks you care about? If someone you work with has shared their values, do you find that making sense of their behavior and interactions is clearer? If we are honest about our core motivations and willing to share, then working together can become significantly easier. I personally value learning and people above everything. Note I use the word “people,” not community, purposefully. I value you, the individual, and I want to know you. I never want to know people solely through context (we work at the same company, our kids attend the same school, etc.) because then our brains use archetypes to generalize about the other person rather than really understanding who people are and what motivates them.

This set of values means I tend toward smaller groups: I like one-on-one discussions, and team-building is particularly important to me (grabbing a meal, taking a walk, going on a hike together, etc.) to establish trust with people. Anyone who knows me or has worked with me probably knows the learning piece–I love learning, and whenever I have successfully figured out how to frame an experience as a learning one, I have nearly infinite motivation to grind through it. Similarly, if the work is for a person I care about (be it a customer, partner, etc.), I can almost always make it happen, and if I cannot it is particularly hard for me. The heart of this exercise from Dr. Brown is to reflect on this about yourself, and share it with your team/teammates., so you find ways to work best together.

In general I’m a large fan of Dr. Brown and her books, and I personally enjoyed and recommend this book, but obviously the opinion is not universal.

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