Lessons in vulnerability with Brené Brown

The researcher, storyteller, and best-selling author talks risk, leadership, and her love for fonts

The line formed early outside Brené Brown’s recent talk at Microsoft. A researcher of courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame, Brown visited the Redmond campus to talk to employees about her latest book, Braving the Wilderness, and to explore the differences between fitting in and truly belonging—a theme that hits home for many employees.

Before she sat down for her (standing room only) on-stage chat with Microsoft’s Chief People Officer Kathleen Hogan, Brown joined Microsoft employee Naomi Boyd to share more about the purpose behind her work and how she believes innovation cannot thrive without risk, vulnerability, and even failure.

Watch her behind-the-scenes interview to learn more, and check out the abridged transcript below.

Naomi Boyd: Brené, before you speak to our employees on stage, we’d love to ask you a few questions. At Microsoft, we talk a lot about purpose-driven work. When you think about your research about vulnerability and wholehearted living, how do you think your purpose has evolved throughout that work?

Brené Brown: Early in my career, I set a very strong intention about trying to start conversations about the things that no one talks about. Early on it was about shame, empathy, and vulnerability, and I think that’s still the case.

I think my purpose is to excavate the things that impact our lives in very real ways, and then give language to it so we can talk about it.

Naomi Boyd: When you think about trying new things—whether you’re failing or succeeding at them—can you talk about a time you tried something new, took a risk, and what you learned?

Brené Brown: I have a really high tolerance for risk. As a vulnerability researcher, I understand that when there’s no risk, no failure, and no disappointment, there’s no innovation. For me, my tolerance is high as long as when we fail, we embed the learning and don’t fail at the same thing over and over again.

I think the biggest risk is the new book (Braving the Wilderness). I tackle some very difficult issues around the polarization that we’re experiencing around the world right now—the ideological and political combativeness—and that’s a new area for me. Every time I stand up and talk about it, it feels risky to me. I think not talking about the reality of what’s going on right now, because it’s uncomfortable, is the definition of privilege.

I just feel like I have to do it, and the criticism and cynicism are a small price to pay for doing work you love and work you think is important.

Naomi Boyd: At Microsoft, we believe and encourage people to show leadership at any level in their careers. What do you believe makes a great leader?

Brené Brown: I’ve spent the last five years doing a lot of leadership research work, and we define a leader as anyone who holds her or himself accountable for finding the potential in people and processes and developing that. So, I absolutely believe in leadership at every level.

It’s interesting because when I think about what the most transformational leaders I’ve ever interviewed share in common, I would say the top three things are: they have a full understanding of emotion in self, they have a full understanding of emotion in others, and they are willing to have difficult conversations. They’re willing to show up for hard conversations, and I think without that skill, you can’t be a strong leader.

Naomi Boyd: Okay, so my last question is a fun one. If we were to offer you a job today at Microsoft, where would you want to work at the company, and what would your job title be?

Brené Brown: I would be the Chief Font Picker. I love fonts. I read books about fonts sometimes when I’m procrastinating from doing my work.

I would be the person who picks all the fonts for Word and PowerPoint, and I would spend my days looking at the fonts. Then I would make the default font something really curly that would make somebody crazy. I really wouldn’t do that; I would pick a nice non-serif.

If that job comes up and you need somebody, call me.