To reignite creativity, innovation, and learning, leaders must rehumanize education and work. This means understanding how scarcity is affecting the way we lead and work, learning how to engage with vulnerability, and recognizing and combating shame. Make no mistake: honest conversations about vulnerability and shame are disruptive. The reason that we’re not having these conversations in our organizations is that they shine light in dark corners. Once there is language, awareness, and understanding, turning back is almost impossible and carries with it severe consequences. We all want to dare greatly. If you give us a glimpse into that possibility, we’ll hold on to it as our vision.
It can’t be taken away.


Before we start this chapter, I want to clarify what I mean by “leader.” I’ve come to believe that a leader is anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes. The term leader has nothing to do with position, status, or number of direct reports. I wrote this chapter for all of us—parents, teachers, community volunteers, and CEOs—anyone who is willing to dare greatly and lead.


In 2010 I had the opportunity to spend a long weekend with fifty CEOs from Silicon Valley. One of the other speakers at the retreat was Kevin Surace, the then CEO of Serious Materials, and Inc.magazine’s 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year. I knew Kevin was going to speak about disruptive innovation so in my first conversation with him, before either one of us had spoken to the group and before he knew about my work, I asked him this question: What’s the most significant barrier to creativity and innovation?

Kevin thought about it for a minute and said, “I don’t know if it has a name, but honestly, it’s the fear of introducing an idea and being ridiculed, laughed at, and belittled. If you’re willing to subject yourself to that experience, and if you survive it, then it becomes the fear of failure and the fear of being wrong. People believe they’re only as good as their ideas and that their ideas can’t seem too ‘out there’ and they can’t ‘not know’ everything. The problem is that innovative ideas often sound crazy and failure and learning are part of revolution. Evolution and incremental change is important and we need it, but we’re desperate for real revolution and that requires a different type of courage and creativity.”

Before that conversation I had never specifically asked the leaders I’d interviewed about innovation, but everything Kevin was saying fit with my data on work and education. I smiled and responded, “It’s true, isn’t it? Most people and most organizations can’t stand the uncertainty and the risk of real innovation. Learning and creating are inherently vulnerable. There’s never enough certainty. People want guarantees.”

He simply said, “Yes. Again, I’m not sure if there’s a name for the problem, but something related to fear keeps people from going for it. They focus on what they already do well and they don’t put themselves out there.” There was a slight pause in our conversation before he looked at me and said, “So, I understand you’re a researcher. What exactly do you do?”

I chuckled. “I study that something related to fear—I’m a shame-and-vulnerability researcher.”

When I got back to my hotel room I grabbed my research journal and made notes about my conversation with Kevin. As I thought about that something related to fear, I remembered another set of notes that I had written in that same journal. I flipped back until I found the field notes that I had taken after talking to a group of middle school students about their classroom experiences. When I asked them to describe the key to learning, one girl gave the following reply while the others passionately nodded their heads and said, “Yes! That’s it!” and “Exactly.”

“There are times when you can ask questions or challenge ideas, but if you’ve got a teacher that doesn’t like that or the kids in the class make fun of people who do that, it’s bad. I think most of us learn that it’s best to just keep your head down, your mouth shut, and your grades high.”

As I reread this passage in my notes and thought about my conversation with Kevin, I was overwhelmed. As a teacher I felt heartbreak—we can’t learn when our heads are down and our mouths are shut. As a mother of a middle school student and a kindergartener, I found it infuriating. As a researcher, it was the moment when I started to realize how often the struggles of our education system and the challenges we face in our workplaces mirror each other.

I first envisioned this as two separate discussions—one for educators and one for leaders. But as I looked back on the data, I realized that teachers and school administrators are leaders. C-level executives, managers, and supervisors are teachers. No corporation or school can thrive in the absence of creativity, innovation, and learning, and the greatest threat to all three of these is disengagement.

Given what I’ve learned from the research, and what I’ve observed over the past couple of years as I’ve worked with leaders from schools and companies of all sizes and types, I believe we have to completely reexamine the idea of engagement. I call it disruptive engagement for this reason. To reignite creativity, innovation, and learning, leaders must rehumanize education and work. This means understanding how scarcity is affecting the way we lead and work, learning how to engage with vulnerability, and recognizing and combating shame.

Sir Ken Robinson speaks to the power of making this shift in his appeal to leaders to replace the outdated idea that human organizations should work like machines with a metaphor that captures the realities of humanity. In his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Robinson writes, “However seductive the machine metaphor may be for industrial production, human organizations are not actually mechanisms and people are not components in them. People have values and feelings, perceptions, opinions, motivations, and biographies, whereas cogs and sprockets do not. An organization is not the physical facilities within which it operates; it is the networks of people in it.”

Make no mistake: Rehumanizing work and education requires courageous leadership. Honest conversations about vulnerability and shame are disruptive. The reason that we’re not having these conversations in our organizations is that they shine light in the dark corners. Once there is language, awareness, and understanding, turning back is almost impossible and carries with it severe consequences. We all want to Dare Greatly. If you give us a glimpse into that possibility, we’ll hold on to it as our vision. It can’t be taken away.


Shame breeds fear. It crushes our tolerance for vulnerability, thereby killing engagement, innovation, creativity, productivity, and trust. And worst of all, if we don’t know what we’re looking for, shame can ravage our organizations before we see one outward sign of a problem. Shame works like termites in a house. It’s hidden in the dark behind the walls and constantly eating away at our infrastructure, until one day the stairs suddenly crumble. Only then do we realize that it’s only a matter of time before the walls come tumbling down.

In the same way that a casual walk around our house won’t reveal a termite problem, a stroll through an office or a school won’t necessarily reveal a shame problem. Or at least we hope it’s not that obvious. If it is—if we see a manager berating an employee or a teacher shaming a student—the problem is already acute and more than likely has been happening for a long time. In most cases, though, we have to know what we’re looking for when we assess an organization for signs that shame may be an issue.


Blaming, gossiping, favoritism, name-calling, and harassment are all behavior cues that shame has permeated a culture. A more obvious sign is when shame becomes an outright management tool. Is there evidence of people in leadership roles bullying others, criticizing subordinates in front of colleagues, delivering public reprimands, or setting up reward systems that intentionally belittle, shame, or humiliate people?

I’ve never been to a shame-free school or organization. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I doubt it. In fact, once I’ve explained how shame works, I normally have one or two teachers approach me and explain that they use shame on a daily basis. Most ask how to change that practice, but a few proudly say, “It works.” The best-case scenario is that it’s a limited or contained problem, rather than a cultural norm. One reason that I’m confident that shame exists in schools is simply because 85 percent of the men and women we interviewed for the shame research could recall a school incident from their childhood that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves as learners. What makes this even more haunting is that approximately half of those recollections were what I refer to as creativity scars. The research participants could point to a specific incident where they were told or shown that they weren’t good writers, artists, musicians, dancers, or something creative. I still see this happening in schools all of the time. Art is graded on narrow standards and kids as young as kindergarten are told they have creative gifts. This helps explain why the gremlins are so powerful when it comes to creativity and innovation.

Corporations have their own struggles. The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as “Repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, and humiliation.” A 2010 poll conducted by Zogby International for WBI reported that an estimated 54 million American workers (37 percent of the US workforce) have been bullied at work. Furthermore, another WBI report revealed that 52.5 percent of the time, bullied workers reported that employers basically did nothing to stop the bullying.

When we see shame being used as a management tool (again, that means bullying, criticism in front of colleagues, public reprimands, or reward systems that intentionally belittle people), we need to take direct action because it means that we’ve got an infestation on our hands. And we need to remember that this doesn’t just happen overnight. Equally important to keep in mind is that shame is like the other “sh” word. Like shit, shame rolls downhill. If employees are constantly having to navigate shame, you can bet that they’re passing it on to their customers, students, and families.

So, if it’s happening and it can be isolated to a specific unit, work team, or person, it has to be addressed immediately and without shame. We learn shame in our families of origin, and many people grow up believing that it’s an effective and efficient way to manage people, run a classroom, and parent. For that reason, shaming someone who’s using shame is not helpful. But doing nothing is equally dangerous, not only for the people who are targets of the shaming but also for the entire organization.

Several years ago a man came up to me after an event and said, “Interview me! Please! I’m a financial advisor and you wouldn’t believe what happens in my office.” When I met Don for the interview, he told me that in his organization you choose your office each quarter based on your quarterly results: The person with the best results chooses first and sends the person in the desired office packing.

He shook his head, and his voice cracked a bit when he said, “Given that I’ve had the best numbers for the past six quarters, you’d think I’d like that. But I don’t. I absolutely hate it. It’s a miserable environment.” He then told me how after the previous quarterly results were in, his boss walked into his office, closed the door, and told him that he had to move offices.

“At first I thought my numbers had dropped. Then he told me that he didn’t care if I had the best numbers or if I liked my office; the point was to terrorize the other guys. He said, ‘Busting their balls in public builds character. It’s motivating.’”

Before the end of our interview, he told me he was job hunting. “I’m good at my job and even enjoy it, but I didn’t sign up to terrorize people. I never knew why it felt so shitty, but after hearing you talk, now I do. It’s shame. It’s worse than high school. I’ll find a better place to work, and you can be damn sure that I’m taking my clients with me.”

In I Thought It Was Just Me, I tell the following story about Sylvia, an event planner in her thirties who jumped right into our interview by saying, “I wish you could have interviewed me six months ago. I was a different person. I was so stuck in shame.” When I asked her what she meant, she explained that she had heard about my research from a friend and volunteered to be interviewed because she felt her life had been changed by shame. She had recently had an important breakthrough when she found herself on the “losers’ list” at work.

Apparently, after two years of what her employer called “outstanding, winners’ work,” she had made her first big mistake. The mistake cost her agency a major client. Her boss’s response was to put her on the “losers’ list.” She said, “In one minute I went from being on the winners’ board to being at the top of the losers’ list.” I guess I must have winced when Sylvia referred to the “losers’ list” because, without my remarking at all, she said, “I know, it’s terrible. My boss has these two big dry-erase boards outside of his office. One’s the winners’ list, and one board is for the losers.” She said for weeks she could barely function. She lost her confidence and started missing work. Shame, anxiety, and fear took over. After a difficult three-week period, she quit her job and went to work for another agency.

Shame can only rise so far in any system before people disengage to protect themselves. When we’re disengaged, we don’t show up, we don’t contribute, and we stop caring. On the far end of the spectrum, disengagement allows people to rationalize all kinds of unethical behavior including lying, stealing, and cheating. In the case of Don and Sylvia, they didn’t just disengage; they quit and took their talent to competitors.

As we assess our organizations for signs of shame, it’s also important to be aware of external threats—forces outside of our organizations that are influencing how both leaders and employees feel about their work. As a teacher, the sister of two public school teachers, and the sister-in-law of a public high school vice-principal, I don’t have to look far for examples of this.

Several years ago my sister Ashley called me crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that the Houston Chronicle had published the name of every school teacher in the Houston Independent School District along with the bonus they received based on their students’ standardized test scores. I hadn’t seen the paper that day and I was stunned. And I was also confused.

“Ashley, you teach kindergarten. Your kids don’t take the tests yet. Is your name in there?”

Ashley explained that her name was in there and that the paper reported that she got the lowest bonus available. What they didn’t report was that it was the highest bonus available to kindergarten teachers. Imagine doing that—reporting everyone’s salaries or bonuses and moreover reporting them inaccurately—to any other group of professionals.

“I’m in a total shame meltdown,” Ashley said, still crying. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was to be a teacher. I work my butt off. I’ve hit up everyone in our family for money so I can buy school supplies for the kids who can’t afford them. I stay after and help the parents help their kids. I don’t get it. There are hundreds of teachers like me, and do you read about that in the paper? No. And it’s not just about me. Some of the very best teachers I know volunteer to teach some of the most challenging students without any thought about how it’s going to affect their scores or bonuses. They do it because they love their work and they believe in the kids.”

Unfortunately, the “Scarlet Letter” approach to teacher evaluation is not just happening in Texas—it’s become an accepted practice across the nation. The good news is that people are finally daring greatly and speaking up. In response to the New York State Court of Appeals ruling that teachers’ individual performance assessments could be made public, Bill Gates wrote this in a New York Times op-ed: “Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. The surest way to weaken it is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public shaming. Let’s focus on creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.”

When I posted Gates’s op-ed on my Facebook page, many teachers left comments. I was moved by this response from a veteran teacher: “For me, teaching is about love. It is not about transferring information, but rather creating an atmosphere of mystery and imagination and discovery. When I begin to lose myself because of some unresolved pain or fears or the overpowering feelings of shame, then I no longer teach…I deliver information and I think I become irrelevant then.”

Teachers are not the only ones who wrestle with shame delivered (usually in the public media) from outside of the organization. I’m often asked to address this issue when I’m speaking with professionals who are routinely vilified, disliked, or misunderstood by the public—lawyers, dentists, and folks from the financial industry are a few. We might roll our eyes and think, C’mon, we love to hate them!But I can tell you from my experiences that it’s not fun to feel hated simply for doing work that means something to you, and it can take a serious toll on individuals and cultures.

As leaders, the most effective thing we can do when this kind of media abuse is happening is speak out, insist on accuracy and accountability, and confront it head on with the people affected by it. We can’t pretend that it’s not hurting our employees. On a personal level, we can resist buying into and perpetuating the public stereotyping of professions that by their nature operate in realms of personal stress.


Here’s the best way to think about the relationship between shame and blame: If blame is driving, shame is riding shotgun. In organizations, schools, and families, blaming and finger-pointing are often symptoms of shame. Shame researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing explain that in shame-bound relationships, people “measure carefully, weigh, and assign blame.” They write, “In the face of any negative outcome, large or small, someone or something must be found responsible (and held accountable). There’s no notion of ‘water under the bridge.’” They go on to say, “After all, if someonemust be to blame and it’s not me, it must be you! From blame comes shame. And then hurt, denial, anger, and retaliation.”

Blame is simply the discharging of pain and discomfort. We blame when we’re uncomfortable and experience pain—when we’re vulnerable, angry, hurt, in shame, grieving. There’s nothing productive about blame, and it often involves shaming someone or just being mean. If blame is a pattern in your culture, then shame needs to be addressed as an issue.


Related to blame is the issue of cover-ups. Just like blame is a sign of shame-based organizations, cover-up cultures depend on shame to keep folks quiet. When the culture of an organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of individuals or communities, you can be certain that shame is systemic, money drives ethics, and accountability is dead. This is true in all systems, from corporations, nonprofits, universities, and governments, to churches, schools, families, and sports programs. If you think back on any major incidents fueled by cover-ups, you’ll see this pattern.

In an organizational culture where respect and the dignity of individuals are held as the highest values, shame and blame don’t work as management styles. There is no leading by fear. Empathy is a valued asset, accountability is an expectation rather than an exception, and the primal human need for belonging is not used as leverage and social control. We can’t control the behavior of individuals; however, we can cultivate organizational cultures where behaviors are not tolerated and people are held accountable for protecting what matters most: human beings.

We won’t solve the complex issues that we’re facing today without creativity, innovation, and engaged learning. We can’t afford to let our discomfort with the topic of shame get in the way of recognizing and combating it in our schools and workplaces. The four best strategies for building shame-resilient organizations are:

  1. Supporting leaders who are willing to dare greatly and facilitate honest conversations about shame and cultivate shame-resilient cultures.
  2. Facilitating a conscientious effort to see where shame might be functioning in the organization and how it might even be creeping into the way we engage with our co-workers and students.
  3. Normalizing is a critical shame-resilience strategy. Leaders and managers can cultivate engagement by helping people know what to expect. What are common struggles? How have other people dealt with them? What have your experiences been?
  4. Training all employees on the differences between shame and guilt, and teaching them how to give and receive feedback in a way that fosters growth and engagement.


daring greatly culture is a culture of honest, constructive, and engaged feedback. This is true in organizations, schools, and families. I know families struggle with this issue; however, I was shocked to see “lack of feedback” emerge as a primary concern in the interviews that focused on work experiences. Today’s organizations are so metric-focused in their evaluation of performance that giving, receiving, and soliciting valuable feedback ironically has become rare. It’s even a rarity in schools where learning depends on feedback, which is infinitely more effective than grades scribbled on the top of a page or computer-generated, standardized test scores.

The problem is straightforward: Without feedback there can be no transformative change. When we don’t talk to the people we’re leading about their strengths and their opportunities for growth, they begin to question their contributions and our commitment. Disengagement follows.

When I asked people why there was such a lack of feedback in their organizations and schools, they used different language, but the two major issues were the same:

  1. We’re not comfortable with hard conversations.
  2. We don’t know how to give and receive feedback in a way that moves people and processes forward.

The good news is that these are very fixable problems. If an organization makes the creation of a feedback culture a priority and a practice, rather than an aspirational value, it can happen. People are desperate for feedback—we all want to grow. We just need to learn how to give feedback in a way that inspires growth and engagement.

Right off the bat, I believe that feedback thrives in cultures where the goal is not “getting comfortable with hard conversations” but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized: “We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here—you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.” This is true at all levels and in all organizations, schools, faith communities, and even families. I’ve observed this pattern of normalized discomfort in the Wholehearted organizations I’ve researched and I’ve lived it in my classroom and with my family.

I learned to teach by immersing myself in books on engaged and critical pedagogy by writers like bell hooks and Paulo Freire. At first, I was terrified by the idea that if education is going to be transformative, it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpredictable. Now, as I begin my fifteenth year of teaching at the University of Houston, I always tell my students, “If you’re comfortable, I’m not teaching and you’re not learning. It’s going to get uncomfortable in here and that’s okay. It’s normal and it’s part of the process.”

The simple and honest process of letting people know that discomfort is normal, it’s going to happen, why it happens, and why it’s important, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame. Periods of discomfort become an expectation and a norm. In fact, most semesters I have students who approach me after class and say, “I haven’t been uncomfortable yet. I’m concerned.” These exchanges often lead to critically important conversations and feedback about their engagement and my teaching. The big challenge for leaders is getting our heads and hearts around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as a part of growth.

For the best guidance on how to give feedback that moves people and processes forward, I turn to my social work roots. In my experience the heart of valuable feedback is taking the “strengths perspective.” According to social work educator Dennis Saleebey, viewing performance from the strengths perspective offers us the opportunity to examine our struggles in light of our capacities, talents, competencies, possibilities, visions, values, and hopes. This perspective doesn’t dismiss the serious nature of our struggles; however, it does require us to consider our positive qualities as potential resources. Dr. Saleebey proposes, “It is as wrong to deny the possible as it is to deny the problem.”

One effective method for understanding our strengths is to examine the relationship between strengths and limitations. If we look at what we do best as well as what we want to change the most, we will often find that the two are varying degrees of the same core behavior. Most of us can go through the majority of our “faults” or “limitations” and find strengths lurking within.

For example, I can beat myself up for being too controlling and micromanaging, or I can recognize that I’m very responsible, dependable, and committed to quality work. The micromanaging issues don’t go away, but by viewing them from a strengths perspective, I have the confidence to look at myself and assess the behaviors I’d like to change.

I want to emphasize that the strengths perspective is not a tool to simply allow us to put a positive spin on a problem and consider it solved. But by first enabling us to inventory our strengths, it suggests ways we can use those strengths to address the related challenges. One way I teach this perspective to students is by requiring them to give and receive feedback on their classroom presentations. When a student presents, s/he receives feedback from every one of his or her classmates. The students in the audience have to identify three observable strengths and one opportunity for growth. The trick is that they have to use their assessment of the strengths to make a suggestion on how the individual might address the specified opportunity. For example:


  1. You captured my interest right away with your emotional personal story.
  2. You used examples that are relevant to my life.
  3. You concluded with actionable strategies that tied in with our learning in the class.


Your stories and examples made me feel connected to you and what you were saying, but I sometimes struggled to read the PowerPoint and listen to you at the same time. I didn’t want to miss anything you were saying, but I worried about not following the slides. You might experiment with fewer words on the slides—or maybe even no slides. You had me without them.

The research has made this clear: Vulnerability is at the heart of the feedback process. This is true whether we give, receive, or solicit feedback. And the vulnerability doesn’t go away even if we’re trained and experienced in offering and getting feedback. Experience does, however, give us the advantage of knowing that we can survive the exposure and uncertainty, and that it’s worth the risk.

One of the greatest mistakes that I see people make in the feedback process is “armoring up.” To protect ourselves from the vulnerability of giving or receiving feedback, we get ready to rumble (cue Jock Jams). It’s easy to assume that the feedback process only feels vulnerable for the person receiving the feedback, but that’s not true. Honest engagement around expectations and behavior is always fraught with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure for everyone involved. Here’s an example. Susan, the principal of a large high school, has to talk to one of her teachers about several parent complaints. The parents have voiced concerns about the teacher’s cursing during class and making personal calls on her cell phone while she allows her students to leave the class, goof off, and make their own calls. In this situation “armoring up” can take several forms.

One is that Susan can fill out the probation form and have it sitting on her desk when the teacher comes in. She’ll simply say, “Here’s the complaint. I’ve written you up for the following offenses. Sign here and don’t let it happen again.” She’s knocked out the meeting in three minutes flat. There’s no feedback, no growth, no learning, but it’s over. The odds of the teacher changing her behaviors are slim.

Another way we armor up is by convincing ourselves that the other person deserves to be hurt or put down. Like most of us, Susan is more comfortable with anger than vulnerability, so she ratchets up her confidence with a little self-righteousness. “I’m so sick of this. If these teachers respected me, they’d never do stuff like this. I’ve had it. She’s been a problem since the first day I met her. You want to jack around in class—go for it. I’ll show you exactly how this works.” The opportunity for constructive feedback and relationship building turns into a smackdown. Again, it’s over but there is no feedback, no growth, no learning and, more than likely, no change.

I’ll admit that I’ve got a lot of “bring it on” in me. I’m scrappy, I think fast on my feet, and I like my emotions with a little agency. I’m good at anger and only so-so at vulnerability, so armoring up before a vulnerable experience is attractive to me. Luckily, this work has taught me that when I feel self-righteous, it means I’m afraid. It’s a way to puff up and protect myself when I’m afraid of being wrong, making someone angry, or getting blamed.


In my social work training, a lot of attention was paid to how we talk to people, even down to where and how we sit. For example, I would never talk to a client across a desk; I would walk around my desk and sit in a chair across from the client so there was nothing big and bulky between us. I remember the first time I went in to see one of my social work professors about a grade. She got up from behind her desk and asked me to take a seat at a small round table she had in her office. She pulled up a chair and sat next to me.

In armoring up for that conversation, I had pictured her sitting behind her big metal desk and me defiantly sliding my paper across it and demanding an explanation for my grade. After she sat down next to me, I put the paper on the table. As she said, “I’m so glad that you came in to talk to me about your paper. You did a great job on this; I loved your conclusion,” and patted me on the back, I awkwardly realized that we were on the same side of the table.

Totally discombobulated, I blurted, “Thank you. I worked really hard on it.”

She nodded and said, “I can tell. Thank you. I took some points off for your APA formatting. I’d like for you to focus on that and get it cleaned up. You could submit this for publication, and I don’t want the reference formatting to hold you back.”

I was still confused. She thinks it’s publishable? She liked it?

“Do you need some help with the APA formatting? It’s tricky and it took me years to get it down,” she asked. (A great example of normalizing.)

I told her that I’d fix the references and I asked her if she’d look at my revisions. She happily agreed and gave me a few tips on the process. I thanked her for her time and left, grateful for my grade and for a teacher who cared as much as she did.

Today, “Sitting on the same side of the table” is my metaphor for feedback. I used it to create my Engaged Feedback Checklist:

I know I’m ready to give feedback when:
I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you;
I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you);
I’m ready to listen, ask questions, and accept that I may not fully understand the issue;
I want to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes;
I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges;
I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you;
I’m willing to own my part;
I can genuinely thank you for your efforts rather than criticize you for your failings;
I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to your growth and opportunity; and
I can model the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from you.

How would education be different if students, teachers, and parents sat on the same side of the table? How would engagement change if leaders sat down next to folks and said, “Thank you for your contributions. Here’s how you’re making a difference. This issue is getting in the way of your growth, and I think we can tackle it together. What ideas do you have about moving forward? What role do you think I’m playing in the problem? What can I do differently to support you?”

Let’s go back to the example with Susan, the principal who was armoring up for a smackdown. If she read through this checklist she’d realize that she’s not in a place to give feedback, to be a leader. But with parenting complaints stacking up on her desk, time is an issue for her and she knows the situation needs to be addressed. It can be very difficult to move into the right head and heart space to give feedback when we’re under pressure.

So, how do we create a safe space for vulnerability and growth when we’re not feeling open? Armored feedback doesn’t facilitate lasting and meaningful change—I don’t know a single person who can be open to accepting feedback or owning responsibility for something when they’re being hammered. Our hardwiring takes over and we self-protect.

Susan’s best bet is to model the openness that she hopes to see, and solicit feedback from one of her colleagues. When I interviewed participants who valued feedback and worked at it, they talked about the necessity of soliciting feedback from their peers, asking for advice, and even role-playing difficult situations. If we’re not willing to ask for feedback and receive it, we’ll never be good at giving it. If Susan can work through her own feelings so that she can be present with her employee, she’s much more likely to see the change that she’s requesting.

Some of you might be wondering, “Susan’s employee problem is pretty straightforward and small. Why would she need to spend time soliciting feedback from one of her colleagues for a problem like that?” It’s a good question with an important answer: The size, severity, or complexity of a problem doesn’t always reflect our emotional reactivity to it. If Susan can’t get to the same side of the table with this teacher, it doesn’t matter how simple the problem is or how clear the violation is. What Susan might learn from her peer is that she’s really triggered by this particular teacher or that she’s armoring up because unprofessional behavior is becoming a dangerous norm among this cluster of teachers. Giving and soliciting feedback is about learning and growth, and understanding who we are and how we respond to the people around us is the foundation in this process.

Again, there’s no question that feedback may be one of the most difficult arenas to negotiate in our lives. We should remember, though, that victory is not getting good feedback, avoiding giving difficult feedback, or avoiding the need for feedback. Instead it’s taking off the armor, showing up, and engaging.


I recently gave a talk at the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. The program, which pairs thirty-five to forty elite undergraduate students with mentors and offers comprehensive business training, is ranked as the leading undergrad entrepreneurship program in the United States. I was asked to talk to the students about vulnerability and the power of story.

During the Q&A session after my talk, one of the students asked me a question that I’m sure is often on the minds of people when I talk about vulnerability. He said, “I can see how vulnerability is important, but I’m in sales and I don’t get what that looks like. Does being vulnerable mean that if a customer asks me a question about a product and I don’t know the answer, I just say what I’m thinking: ‘I’m new and I really don’t know what I’m doing?’”

The students, who were all turned around listening to him, turned back in their chairs and looked at me as if to say, “Yeah, that seems lame. Are we really supposed to do that?”

My answer was no. And yes. In that scenario vulnerability is recognizing and owning that you don’t know something; it’s looking the customer in the eye and saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll find out. I want to make sure you have the correct information.” I explained that the unwillingness to engage with the vulnerability of not knowing often leads to making excuses, dodging the question, or—worst-case scenario—bullshitting. That’s the deathblow in any relationship, and the one thing I’ve learned from talking to people who sell for a living is that sales is all about relationships.

So, while I wouldn’t take that tack with the customer, I do think there’s some value in sharing the feeling of not knowing what you’re doing with someone—whether a mentor who can offer support and guidance or a colleague who can help you learn and normalize your experience. Imagine the stress and anxiety of not knowing what you’re doing, trying to convince a customer that you do, not being able to ask for help, and not having anyone to talk to about your struggle. This is how we lose people. It’s too difficult to stay engaged in these circumstances. We start cutting corners, we stop caring, and we check out. After my talk, one of the mentors came up to me and said, “I’ve been in sales my entire career, and let me tell you, there’s nothing more important than having the courage to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and ‘I messed up’—being honest and open is key to success in every part of our lives.”

Last year I had the opportunity to interview Gay Gaddis, the owner and founder of T3 (The Think Tank) in Austin, Texas. T3 is a top integrated marketing firm that specializes in innovative marketing campaigns that cut across all media. In 1989, Gay cashed in a sixteen-thousand-dollar IRA with the dream of starting an advertising agency. Twenty-three years after opening with a handful of regional accounts, Gay has built T3 into the nation’s largest advertising agency wholly owned by a woman. With offices in Austin, New York, and San Francisco, T3 works with clients including Microsoft, UPS, JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer, Allstate, Coca-Cola, and Sprite. Her dynamic business acumen and corporate culture have led to national recognition. She has been named one of Fast Company’s Top 25 Women Business Builders, Inc.magazine’s Top 10 Entrepreneurs of the Year, and one of the top 25 Advertising Working Mothers of the Year by Working Mother magazine. Gay and T3’s family-friendly workplace program, “T3 and Under,” was even recognized by the White House.

I jumped right into my interview with Gay by telling her that a business journalist had recently told me that, unlike leaders in corporations who are shielded by layers of systems, entrepreneurs can’t afford to be vulnerable. When I asked her what she thought about that proposition, she smiled. “When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.”

Here’s how she explained it: “By definition, entrepreneurship is vulnerable. It’s all about the ability to handle and manage uncertainty. People are constantly changing, budgets change, boards change, and competition means you have to stay nimble and innovative. You have to create a vision and live up to that vision. There is no vision without vulnerability.”

Knowing that Gay spends a considerable amount of time teaching and mentoring, I asked her what advice she gives new entrepreneurs about embracing uncertainty. She said, “Success requires entrepreneurs to cultivate strong support networks and good mentors. You need to learn how to shut out the noise so you can get clear on how you feel and what you think, and then you do the hard work. No question—it’s all about vulnerability.”

Another great example of the power of vulnerability—this time in a corporation—is the leadership approach taken by Lululemon’s CEO, Christine Day. In a video interview with CNN Money, Day explained that she was once a very bright, smart executive who “majored in being right.” Her transformation came when she realized that getting people to engage and take ownership wasn’t about “the telling” but about letting them come into the idea in a purpose-led way, and that her job was creating the space for others to perform. She characterized this change as the shift from “having the best idea or problem solving” to “being the best leader of people.”

The shift she described is the shift from controlling to engaging with vulnerability—taking risks and cultivating trust. And while vulnerability can sometimes make us feel powerless, her shift was a total power move. Day has increased the number of stores from 71 to 174, while total revenue has grown from $297 million to almost $1 billion, and Lululemon’s stock is up about 300 percent since its 2007 IPO.

In a written interview with Day accompanying the video, the idea of vulnerability as the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and trust continued to play out—even when it comes to failure and defeat. One of Day’s leadership guideposts is “finding the magic makers.” As Day explained, “Taking responsibility, taking risks, and having an entrepreneurial spirit are qualities we look for in our employees. We want people who bring their own magic. Athletes are great within our culture; they’re used to winning as well as losing. They know how to handle—and fix—defeat.” Day also emphasized the importance of allowing people to make mistakes: “Our golden rule? If you screw up, you clean it up.”

In businesses, schools, faith communities—any system, even families—we can tell a lot about how people engage with vulnerability by observing how often and how openly you hear people saying:

• I don’t know.
• I need help.
• I’d like to give it a shot.
• It’s important to me.
• I disagree—can we talk about it?
• It didn’t work, but I learned a lot.
• Yes, I did it.
• Here’s what I need.
• Here’s how I feel.
• I’d like some feedback.
• Can I get your take on this?
• What can I do better next time?
• Can you teach me how to do this?
• I played a part in that.
• I accept responsibility for that.
• I’m here for you.
• I want to help.
• Let’s move on.
• I’m sorry.
• That means a lot to me.
• Thank you.

For leaders, vulnerability often looks and feels like discomfort. In his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin writes, “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable.…It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle. When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.”

As I looked over the data and read through my notes from the interviews I’ve done with leaders, I wondered what students would say to teachers and what teachers would say to their principals if they had the opportunity to ask for the leadership they needed. I wondered what the customer service representative would say to his boss and what she might ask of her boss. What do we want people to know about us and what do we need from them?

As I started writing down the answers to these questions, I realized that they sounded like a mandate; a manifesto. Here’s what emerged from these questions:

The Daring Greatly
Leadership Manifesto
To the CEOs and teachers. To the principals and the managers. To the politicians, community leaders, and decision-makers:
We want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire.
We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement.
We crave purpose, and we have a deep desire to create and contribute.
We want to take risks, embrace our vulnerabilities, and be courageous.
When learning and working are dehumanized—when you no longer see us and no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform—we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas, and our passion.
What we ask is that you engage with us, show up beside us, and learn from us.
Feedback is a function of respect; when you don’t have honest conversations with us about our strengths and our opportunities for growth, we question our contributions and your commitment.
Above all else, we ask that you show up, let yourself be seen, and be courageous. Dare Greatly with us.





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