Do You Dare?

I read Brené Brown’s latest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Gotham Books, 2012), this summer all the while nodding and commenting to myself with enthusiasm.

The title aptly draws from the words of Theodore Roosevelt in his “Citizen in A Republic” speech of April 1910: “It is not the critic who counts… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who strives valiantly… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Brown’s December 2010 TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” offers a good preview:


When I picked up Daring Greatly, I was expecting a book similar in style to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow or Kathryn Schultz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Errora treatise about how best to understand human nature, and apply that understanding to our schools and families, in which specific data is shared. I admit to some disappointment when encountering Brown’s statements that begin “The research shows…” and end with generalizations sans numerical support. I went digging, reading the Daring Greatly appendices carefully and rounding up Brown’s scholarly article, “Shame resilience theory: A grounded study on women and shame” in Families in Society (2006, 87, 1: 43-52, accessible for a fee). I came to understand that the grounded theory methodology used by Brown and others in her field does not yield the sort of data that I was seeking. Statements about the number of interviewees expressing themes of “being unworthy of acceptance,” for instance, are not to be found.

Photo by Claudia Daggett

My lack of appreciation for grounded theory methodology aside, this is a book very much worth reading. Daring Greatly offers us at least three important lessons relevant to school leadership.

On the essential quality of hope. I was reminded of the writing of Wendy Mogel and Paul Tough when I read: “Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own ability.” And I applauded in response to “Hope is learned.” Referring to the findings of the work of C.R. Snyder, Brown states: “To learn hopefulness, children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries, consistency, and support. Children with high levels of hope have experience with adversity. They’ve been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn to believe in themselves.” (Daring Greatly, pp. 239-240)

On the important impact of school culture. “A sense of worthiness inspires us to be vulnerable, share openly, and persevere,” says Brown. She elaborates: “In shame-prone cultures, where parents, leaders, and administrators consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self-worth to what they produce, I see disengagement, blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism, and a total dearth of creativity and innovation.” (Daring Greatly, pp. 64-65)

On leading whole-heartedly. Citing the work of Peter Fuda and Richard Badham summarized in “Fire, snowball, mask, movie: How leaders spark and sustain change” (Harvard Business Review, November 2011), Brown tells us that “courage is contagious” and that the “act of vulnerability is predictably perceived as courageous by team members and inspires others to follow suit.” (Daring Greatly, p. 54)

Several of my independent school colleagues have drawn on Brown’s work in their words to parents. A few examples:

  • In her December 2012 letter to parents, Gretchen Larkin, Assistant Principal for the Lower School at Milton Academy (and now Head-Elect at Charles River School) endorsed Daring Greatly, encouraging parents to help their children embrace struggle, cleverly reminding them of the relevance of her school’s motto, “Dare to be True.”
  • In “Encouraging Self-Discipline” (Lions Share Blog, 3/07/13), Garhett Wagers, Headmaster of St. Mark’s Episcopal School, urged parents to give children room to fail, quoting Brown: “If we are always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own.” 
  • In “Vulnerability on the First Day of School” (The Genius in Children, 8/17/11), author, consultant, and former head of school Rick Ackerly closed his remarks with a quotation from Brown’s TED talk: “Courage, compassion, connection are what make you worthy, not how often you don’t make mistakes.”

I have found myself returning frequently to Brené Brown’s words, particularly in moments when I might otherwise entertain taking a lower-profile approach to an issue or task. Her words resound — and they’re helpful. “Be your whole-hearted self” — “daring greatly.”

Brené Brown is a keynote speaker at the Elementary School Heads Association’s Annual Conference in October. Can’t wait!


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