Book Review: Dare to Lead

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Brene Brown has been saying helpful things about leadership for years. She has a legion of fans. So, it was amazing that I hadn’t read a single one of her books. I had The Gifts of Imperfection on my to-read list, but it kept slipping down in the face of other enthusiasms.

Then, I saw a quote from her most recent book, Dare to Lead. It said: “I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”

That was enough for me, I picked up a copy of Dare to Lead. When I blogged that I was reading the book, a funny thing happened. Usually, I get one or two tweets and emails from people who had strong opinions about the book. This time, I received more tweets and emails than usual. Most said something like, “I’d like to hear what you think about this book.”

I contacted a couple of the people who had reached out to me and asked them what their concern was. It turned out that they were puzzled by the book. They liked it a lot, but they weren’t quite sure it was a good book or really all that helpful. I try to address those concerns in this review.

A book you think is great may not even be helpful to someone else. A book that was great for you when you were 25 might not be great for you later in life.

I told you that so I could tell you this. Dare to Lead was an excellent book for me. It brought together many things that I had been reading and thinking about over the last year. I found a lot of good stuff and, other than a nit to pick here and there, I didn’t find any bad stuff. That’s my personal summary judgement. Now for some details to address the questions of the people who emailed me.

Most business books have a short statement somewhere near the front of the book where the author tells us what he or she wants the book to accomplish. I couldn’t find one in Dare to Lead. Dare to Lead is more like a collection of things than a coherent book laying out a coherent system of thought. It’s two books in one.

About two thirds of the book is devoted to the basics. Brene Brown calls it Part One and titles it “Rumbling with Vulnerability.”

“Rumbling?” Yep. I think “rumbling” is the author’s term for a conversation where you thrash things out. I don’t know this for sure, because she never shares a succinct definition of “rumbling.” It’s in-group language. You read the book or take a class and learn the language. Then you use it to communicate with others who know the language. It’s like a secret handshake that only group members know. That can be good for branding. It’s not good for understanding, though, because there are no specific definitions to fall back on.

In any case, the “Rumbling with Vulnerability” part of the book has five sections.

* The Moment and The Myths
* The Call to Courage
* The Armory
* Shame and Empathy
* Curiosity and Grounded

There are three more parts to the book. Part Two is “Living Into Our Values.” Part Three is “Braving Trust.” “Braving” here is an acronym, not a form of the word “brave.” Part Four is “Learning to Rise.” “Rise” is more insider language. I couldn’t find a place where she explicitly defines it. “She talks about it and gives you an example or two and figures you’ll get it.

I found many good things in the book. I think you will, too. There are ideas you can use and tactics you can master, even if you uncouple them from Dr. Brown’s insider language.

A big problem with the book is that it isn’t a coherent system. It’s a collection of things. Many of the things are good, but they’re not connected in any logical way, they’re mixed together.

That may be good or bad for you. If you like teasing stuff out and learning from descriptions and examples, no problem. But if you prefer a tight system with clear definitions and chains of reason, you will be frustrated.

Another issue is the way Dr. Brown treats courage. For her, courage is a value. In fact, she says that on page 52. When she talks about values in the book, she lists courage as a value. Then, she goes on to talk about how you need courage for all these other things.

I agree that you need courage. Especially if you’re someone responsible for the performance of a group, there are things you must do that require courage. You must talk to people about unacceptable performance or behavior. That takes courage. You need courage to take unpopular stands. You will have to do hard things for the good of the group, like firing someone you like but who isn’t performing. You need courage to do many of the things that Brene Brown suggests you do in the book.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is courage is not a value, it’s a virtue. That’s how the ancient philosophers like Socrates, Medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, and more recent thinkers like David Brooks and Maya Angelou understand courage. Ms. Angelou sums it up best.

“I am convinced that courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair.”

Bottom Line

Dare To Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts by Brene Brown covers a lot of ground and it has a lot of good stuff in it. It was a great book for me because it brought a lot of things together without imposing a real system on them.

If you’re already a fan of Brene Brown and read her books, you will probably like this one. She repeats parts of earlier books sometimes with changes that grow out of her research. That may be okay with you, or it may not.

If you’ve already read something Brene Brown wrote and you didn’t like it, you won’t like this book either.

Give this book a pass if you’re looking for a tightly reasoned system. Dare to Lead is a loosely coupled collection of ideas and suggestions.

Pass on Dare to Lead if in-group language makes you crazy.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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