July 13, 2018
Editor's Choice: Leading with Emotional Courage: How to Have Hard Conversations, Create Accountability, and Inspire Action on Your Most Important Work
Leading with Emotional Courage: How to Have Hard Conversations, Create Accountability, and Inspire Action on Your Most Important Work by Peter Bregmen, Wiley, 272 pages, Hardcover, July 2018, ISBN 9781119505693
“Think of a hard conversation you know you should have with someone, but you haven’t initiated.” So begins Peter Bregman’s new book, Leading with Emotional Courage. It’s not put in the form of a question (Is there someone you know you should talk to?), because he knows we all have one. It could be with a coworker, colleague, or business partner, a spouse, sibling, child, or parent. Maybe it’s an employee who is underperforming us work, a boss we feel is undervaluing us, or a dear old friend that has hurt our feelings in some way. Whatever it is, there’s a pretty simple reason we haven’t initiated that hard conversation yet—because it’s hard. The very thought of it makes us uncomfortable, anxious, and afraid, and we don’t want to feel those things. So we don’t, and allow an employee to flounder, or quietly seethe as our confidence erodes under a leader we don’t feel seen by, and lose touch with friends we love.
Bregman breaks that difficulty down:
What’s hard—what actually derails us from acting powerfully in our lives, in our relationships, at work, in the world—is discomfort. The discomfort of follow-through.
On the surface, it seems like the key to follow-through is the courage to act. And it is. But what underlies the courage to act?
The courage to feel. Emotional Courage.
Leading with Emotional Courage, the book and the act itself, is about so much more than having difficult conversations. It is, like the leadership training he has spent over 30 years developing, about how to “improve people’s ability to act—individually and together—by increasing their willingness to feel.”
When writing about such so-called “soft” issues in the past, I’ve sometimes tempered it with statements about how it isn’t too touchy-feely, worried that readers will think it’s not serious or important enough for business. I’ve been wrong to do that. It is touchy-feely, which is what makes it so hard, so very serious, and so important to work on.
Our feelings aren’t what gets in the way; It’s our reluctance to experience them. Actually experiencing our emotions, and those of others, is what allows us to break through—at work and in life. As Bregman writes:
When you are willing to feel, you are willing to act, to take risks. It’s a risk to be confident, to believe in yourself. A risk to be open to others. A risk to commit to something bigger than yourself. Confidence, connection, and commitment require that you be communicative, vulnerable, and honest. You will feel exposed. You may be hurt. […] You’re making a bet—on yourself, on others, on a purpose—and that bet may not play out in your favor. It’s a risk. And that’s scary.
But life and work and the world itself are often uncertain and scary anyway. We need to remain engaged in it all and act anyway. To do so effectively, we need strong leaders who are open to others, not strongmen that shut them down.
There are “four essential elements that all great leaders demonstrate” you will learn in the book:
- You need to be confident in yourself.
- You need to be connected to others.
- You need to be committed to a purpose.
- You need to act with emotional courage.
Confidence, connection, commitment, and courage. There are four parts of the book, one dedicated to each of those elements. To connect to others, for instance, you must first connect fully to yourself. And while I’ve read many other authors who recommend meditation over the years, I haven’t come across anyone in the business genre—until now—do so for such a foundational reason.
He also advocates for compassion—for others and for ourselves—and recognizing not only that which we like in ourselves, but acknowledging the darker sides of our nature, as well:
We can’t confidently be who we are while repressing some part of who we are (confidence that depends on repression is fragile). And repression doesn’t make things go away, it just leads us to push those things into the shadows, and project them onto other people. At which point, most likely, we’ll be controlled by—and even become—the very things we hate.
There is great wisdom, for the world as well as the individual, in those three sentences. Acknowledging the aspects of ourselves we don’t like is the only way to avoid becoming what we despise. And though he shares stories from his leadership practice throughout to illustrate such lessons, he does it mostly by revealing himself, and telling stories of when he (in one case literally) has fallen down and failed. There are many paragraphs in the book that are simply a list of his faults. He tells stories of himself that he is clearly not proud of, others that are deeply conflicted. But he always gets back up, is always trying to actively help bring about the world he wants to live in. So he also tells of how deliberately slowing down (rather than making a plan for all the things he needs to improve) has helped him find clarity, and improved his relationships. He suggests making how often we laugh our measure of success. And, of course, he examines the best way to lead people, which he believes is by listening and learning, and remaining eternally curious about others rather than trying to control them. “Your ability to move forward on important work,” Bregman writes, “is directly related to your ability to connect with others.”
Your task here is to profoundly see and appreciate others—and to be profoundly seen and appreciated by them—thereby developing relationships that build loyalty and commitment in those around you. In the context of those very real relationships, you will have hard conversations and make difficult decisions people may not always agree with, while deepening your connection to them.
“Seen and heard, appreciated and trusted.” Of course those things are important. It’s all so fundamental, really, why do we not read it in such simple, humane terms more often? Much of what Bregman communicates in the book is anathema to beliefs and practices that have become widespread in business, and espoused in so much of the literature around it. He explains how “communication ‘tactics’ can actually get in the way of communication,” and why “no personality assessment”—so widely used in business—“is valid or reliable.”
They offer us the illusion of understanding at the cost of truth and freedom. Sure, they may make people more comfortable (“Oh, I understand you now”). But it’s a trick.
The tool he offers to replace it? Curiosity. And, of course he offers communication “tactics” of his own, in a certain sense, but they are more about personal introspection than direct, attempted influence. What he reminds us of constantly is our own power, and how to use it effectively, kindly, and generously in a way that is useful to others. What it reveals is that being emotionally open and available, being vulnerable, isn’t weak; It’s the only way to build real strength. It’s the most effective way of developing gifted, game (willing), and generous people, and instilling a sense of ownership in them, of helping others step up and be trustworthy to create a culture of commitment and accountability that is supportive rather than fearful and controlling. Leading without controlling is tricky, but it can be done if you’re willing to feel the people you’re leading and let them feel you. Being emotional, feeling things, isn’t being messy. The world is messy, and we feel it. It is when you refuse to feel that things become even more of a mess. Bregman writes:
Just because we don’t recognize a feeling doesn’t mean it goes away. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Not feeling something guarantees it won’t go away.
That said, you don’t need to act out all your feelings. Sure, you must have hard conversations, but it’s important to not let anger or resentment or fear dictate them. Sending an email while angry, for instance, is almost always a terrible idea. And it is those kind of details of leadership that Bregman explores even as he plumbs the deeper depths of the “emotional adventure” that is leadership. It is very much about how to lead others, but it is more primarily about how to lead your best life.
We are many things—often contradictory—all at the same time. That’s the complicated truth of being a human being. And, the best way to meet that complicated truth, is to uncompromisingly, unhesitatingly, unshamefully, feel it all…
This is a book about leadership, yes, but it is also, very simply and very profoundly, a book about life. It is a reminder that your most important work isn’t always done at work. It’s about accepting who you are, and becoming the person you want to be. It’s about connecting to others, and embracing our humanness. One of my favorite lines in the book is: “If you are willing to feel everything, you can do anything.”
So, think back to that hard conversation you know you should have with someone, and make a decision to have it. But read Peter Bregman’s Leading with Emotional Courage first.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books, and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.