The first time I encountered BrenéBrown, a cartoon had been overlaid over her voice, and a moose, a bear and a fox were discussing the differences between sympathy and empathy. You can watch it here, and you will be glad that you did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
BrenéBrown is a New York Times bestselling author, known for her Ted Talks and her humorous, honest, research-backed approach to talking about courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. In her newest book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., she is back doing what she does best.
In the introduction, she says that the question that she uses with senior leaders in a variety of organizations and settings is this: “What, if anything, about the way people are leading today needs to change in order for leaders to be successful in a complex, rapidly changing environment where we’re faced with seemingly intractable challenges and an insatiable demand for innovation? There was one answer across the interviews: We need braver leaders and more courageous cultures.”
This kind of question is exactly what I am interested in in my own research about changing cultural contexts in the suburban landscape of the United States where many churches are located. What, if anything, about the way people are leading today needs to change to address the realities of our time and place.
My question is not just about how are communities changing and how do our churches match up or compare with that change. But the question is, as we notice this, as we learn about it, as we see cultural shifts happening around us, what are the courageous conversations that we (inside) the church need to have. What are the topics that have been too taboo to touch? What is the journey of self-knowledge that we need to take? What are the hard truths that we need to face?
A Washington Post reviewer writes, “Some of her takeaways seem entirely at odds with our present moment. Truly daring leaders, she explains, are prepared to be vulnerable and listen without interrupting. They have empathy, connecting to emotions that underpin an experience, not just to the experience itself. They have self-awareness and self-love, because who we are is how we lead. It’s easy to see how Brown’s research easily translates to parenthood. And marriages. And government hearings.”And I would add “churches”.
Vulnerability is a key word for BrenéBrown in a lot of her writing and speaking. She writes, “Adaptability to change, hard conversations, feedback, problem-solving, ethical decision making, recognition, resilience, and all of the other skills that underpin daring leadership are born of vulnerability.”
When thinking about what this would look like, these hard conversations and honest, vulnerable moments within a team, or between people, or at a church, Brown uses the term rumbling with vulnerability. The “rumble” is the tough topic or feedback or look in the mirror that isn’t so easy. But she says, rather than enter into these rumbles between and among the community, with a sense of defensiveness or wearing armor, she counsels that we must be willing to rumble in a vulnerable way.
That means listening more than we talk. Accepting that not everyone will agree with everything that is being said. Allowing divergent views to be aired. And modeling for people what it looks like to really lead within a complex and shifting environment. In a way, she is asking for the Christian virtue of mutuality (of love, trust, and sharing) to be on display.
One of the principles that Brown emphasizes is power with, which she says, “has to do with finding common ground among different interests in order to build collective strength.” From my pastoral leadership perspective, this is the work that leaders do within congregations. Most pastoral leaders do not exercise power over, as perhaps some ecclesial leaders do, nor are we simply to be driven by the lowest common denominator, or the desire to avoid conflict. To the contrary. With great love for the people in our care, we actively guide them into conversations that will be important for their own lives, and for the sake of the larger church.
An example of this in my own context is a series of “courageous conversations” that we held during Advent this past year, exploring issues around refugees, immigrants, and racial/ethnic differences in our church and our community. Over the past few weeks of Lent, we held a supper and study program where we read and discussed the Letter from the Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. These were both ways into some hard conversations (especially about race), but they were set up to encourage listening and sharing, rather than debating or blaming.
My encouragement in reading Dare to Lead, is that as my congregation builds the muscles that allow us to have these kinds of talks, there is a lot more room to grow, and to push, and to lead, even into things that I would normally hold back from or keep us away from. The kind of daring leadership that Brown suggests in her book calls on leaders to be ready to take risks for the sake of the future health and growth of the church. Hers is the kind of reasonable, challenging, humorous, and loving book that helps me to grow as a leader, especially around topics that are difficult to take on.
She writes that “integrity is choosing courage over comfort; it’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy; and it’s practicing your values, not just professing them.” This is one of my growing edges as a leader, and BrenéBrown has put her finger right on it. It was a great book to read!
Mary Beth Albright, review of Dare to Lead: Brave work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, Washington Post, October 6, 2018, Books, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/brene-brown-knows-what-makes-a-great-leader–and-most-politicians-wouldnt-make-the-cut/2018/10/15/876433ac-c7fa-11e8-b1ed-1d2d65b86d0c_story.html?utm_term=.6e32f3139ce5.