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e were incredibly excited to have Brené Brown present at Symposium. Addressing internal issues of motivation, scarcity, shame and anxiety, as well as revealing the power found in vulnerability and courage, Brené’s presentation opened the gate to discovering the inspirational leader in each of us. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past 10 years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame. She has been featured on PBS, NPR, CNN and TED. We were lucky enough to have her join us at this past Symposium for our Saturday morning keynote presentation. Brené began by telling the story of her worst speaking experience ever. It was the first time she was invited to speak to a group of people who were not her colleagues and she was very excited. When she arrived at the country club where the event was being held, the meeting planner asked for her bio so she could introduce her to the audience. After skimming Brené’s bio, the meeting planner was horrified by her subject matter and instructed Brené to deliver a presentation that was “light and breezy” as the women would absolutely not want to hear about things like shame and vulnerability. The planner instructed her that she was to give them a “how-to” presentation with tips and tricks about being happy. Brené attempted to deliver what was requested, but was way out of her comfort zone and felt like a fraud. Brené continued her keynote by sharing her general opinion of “how-to” instructions. Of course, we all know to make the right decisions. We know to eat the apple, not the apple fritter. We know to put the $200 in savings rather than buying a new sweater. We are all hyperinformed, yet we are the most obese, medicated, in-debt and addicted adults in human history. We have more science, information and education than ever before. We know how-to, but our circumstances get in the way and we make the wrong choices.

Motivation is not sustainable. It is really about manipulation. When we’re at the gym and getting tired, putting music on may motivate us to keep going, but it will only work for a very limited amount of time. When we become inspired everything falls into place. Inspiration is sustainable, but so much more difficult to achieve. Motivation is about what we know. Inspiration is about who we are and what we believe. Brené illustrated this point with a few observations from her years of research. Every successful leader she has interviewed stays very far away from motivating. They are not using the “carrot and stick” approach. They strive to inspire the people around them with who they are and how they behave. The most successful, well-adjusted young adults she has interviewed all say they were inspired by who their parents were. Their parents weren’t rewarding them for their successes—they were leading by example—showing their children who they should become.

Scarcity Our culture today is defined by scarcity. Brené maintained that there is never enough of anything—and urged us all to fill in the blank. We are never good enough, rich enough, safe enough, perfect enough, loved enough, extraordinary enough, valued enough, worthy enough—the list goes on and on. So many of us relate to the celebrities we see and hear about. With technology like Twitter and Facebook, the lifestyles of the extremely rich and famous have become the new standard. Many young people feel inadequate, don’t even try to be successful and simply disengage. To illustrate this, Brené shared a story of a young woman she had interviewed who decided she wasn’t going to go to college because she didn’t want to share a room with another girl, without a flat-screen television or a housekeeper.

Shame We all experience shame. Shame is our messenger—telling us we’re not good enough to

accomplish whatever task we’re thinking of attempting. If we are able to build up confidence and work past our initial shame, the little voice creeps right back into our head, reminding us it will return when we fail and fall flat on our faces. As much as we hate to admit it, shame is something we all experience. Brené’s research eventually led her to question why some people are able to exist in this same culture of scarcity and shame, yet feel they are “enough.” She began analyzing her data to find a common thread and found they all had a strong sense of love and belonging. Brené maintains these are irreducible needs—where love and belonging are absent, there is suffering 100% of the time. We are hard-wired for connection—it gives us purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, professing love and practicing love are two different things. We are all hard on each other and many of us tend to take out our frustrations on the people we love. What most often gets in the way of true, deep belonging is our tendency to attempt to fit in to a group. When we try to say the right thing, drop the right names and wear the right clothes and the connection isn’t there, we feel inadequate. On the other hand, if we approach a group to show up and be seen—rather than to “fit in”—the results are much different. By being ourselves regardless of the group, we are open to a connection being made, but don’t feel shame if it doesn’t happen. The common thread Brené found is wholeheartedness. Men and women who are able to thrive in this environment of scarcity do so by living with their whole hearts.

Brené has asked thousands of people to define what vulnerability is to them. The answers she’s heard include getting sick, asking for help, making a mistake, not knowing if you can make the house payment, calling a friend who’s lost a child and loving someone who is struggling with addiction. The idea that vulnerability is weakness is a misconception. It really has nothing to do with weakness. Facing these types of situations demonstrates courage. Another common misconception about vulnerability is that it’s optional. We all face vulnerability—the choice is really what we do with it. Do we get

angry? Do we get controlling? Or do we, like Brené, get very, very perfect? The primary thing we do in response to vulnerability is to create armor. This armor helps us avoid being vulnerable, however, the problem is that we leave this armor on when we come home at night and nobody ever gets to see who we truly are under all of that armor. The thing a lot of us don’t realize is that vulnerability is not only where we feel shame, scarcity, fear, anxiety and uncertainty. It is also the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, inspiration, innovation, creativity, authenticity, accountability and adaptability. Without vulnerability we can’t feel any of these things.

We live in a culture of reflexive cynicism and projectile criticism. We are all in the spotlight and can’t do anything without being criticized or put down. This is a relatively new phenomenon. The anonymity of the Internet has created a lack of boundaries. Think of bullying. Many people believe that bullying is a problem among our children. Brené believes this is not a child problem. It’s a cruelty crisis and the adults are leading the charge. We are telling our kids to be nice to one another while we are driving down the road waving our middle finger at other drivers. It’s crazy. We need to lead by example. Everything we do has to be brave. Brené paraphrased a quote from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris. It’s not the critic who counts. It’s not the man who points and laughs and puts down the doer of deeds who should be doing better. It’s the man in the arena who is bloodied, sweaty, full of dust, trying his hardest and without question coming up short again and again and again. Regardless of whether he loses or wins every time he steps into that arena he is daring greatly. If we want to be sure nobody criticizes us, then we have one option—do nothing. No matter what we do, someone will be there to criticize our actions. If we want something, we have to go for it—whether or not we are successful, we will have dared greatly.



The Latin root of courage means heart. The original definition is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart—to say, “This is who I am.” Brené asked us if we were holding space for peoples’ stories. She encouraged everyone to invite these stories and tell our own. To illustrate the importance of this point, Brené went back to the story she shared at the beginning of the presentation of her worst speaking experience. She left that presentation feeling like a failure and didn’t talk about it—not even to her husband—until much later, when she was preparing for a very important presentation and was completely blocked. Her husband, trying to help, didn’t understand her fear of failing. Once she finally shared the story with him, she realized that she had gained the power to create the ending—she would never again let someone tell her not to talk about the difficult things. It doesn’t align with her values. However, until she told the story, she couldn’t write the ending. Every single person has a story that will break your heart. None of us are immune. We need to find space to hold these stories for ourselves and for the people around us. Brené shared another of her favorite quotes— this one from John Kotter with Harvard Business School.

Anxiety is not a function of individuals—it’s a function of groups. We rarely see, in a group of people, only one person anxious. It takes only seconds for that emotion to catch on. There are two patterned ways we deal with anxiety. About 60% of us over-function. We get controlling. We micro-manage. We know what’s best for everyone. We get perfectionistic. We want to be in charge. The rest of us underfunction when faced with anxiety. We become less competent than we really are, we don’t show up and we can’t get organized. Brené stressed the point that one is not less dangerous than the other. It’s important for us to know who we are and to have someone in our life (and in our office) who has permission to tell us when we are over- or under-functioning. This can easily be a trigger for shame, but it’s important to remember that the way we respond to anxiety is not based on who we are. These are patterned, managed ways of behaving that we grow up with. We want to learn the superpower of staying calm in the face of anxiety. We can ask, “Do I have enough data to freak out?” and “If I do, will that be helpful?” The answer is always “No.” Taking time to breathe and ask these questions gives us enough time to get out of the limbic system (the fight or flight part of the brain) and make good decisions.

Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings. Brené maintains that there is not a single ounce of data that says fear as a management tool works. She encouraged Symposium attendees to move from fear to joy, to influence emotion, share stories and cultivate connections. That is the way to change and inspire people.

Conclusion Brené left our group paraphrasing one final quote—this one from Madeleine L’Engle. Most of us believed that once we grew up we would no longer have to be vulnerable. But in fact, growing up means we need to engage in vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be alive.


The Inspirational Leader Seattle Study Club Journal, Volume 16, Number 3

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