It’s a killer conversational tool, especially if you speak, and
listen, to people for a living. Which is what Brown—a licensed
social worker and academic researcher turned TED Talk viral
celebrity, turned best-selling author and leadership guru, and
now turned founder and CEO—fundamentally does.
Her pause confers refection and authority. It makes you feel
heard. Each prolonged silence is fattering to both Brown and her
conversation partner: “What a great question,” the pause says,
before imbuing her eventual response with thoughtful weight.
Sitting in the airy, two-story Houston headquarters that
Brown’s book sales and speaking fees have allowed her business to occupy—and to decorate with cushy Restoration Hardware furniture and the fresh fowers she buys her staf twice a
month—the founder casts her mind back to life before fame.
Hands clasped before her mouth and blond head bowed, as if
in prayer, an occasional shake of her head punctuating her
process, Brown thinks, a lot, before she speaks.
“I don’t mourn anything,” Brown says, “because … ”—and
here she stops, for 11 silent seconds—“I am unapologetically
ambitious, and I’m not any more ambitious now than I was then.”
However—and here she pauses again—“I don’t like being a
She is, and she isn’t. An Oprah-endorsed leadership consul-
tant to the likes of Pixar, IBM, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Bill
& Melinda Gates Foundation, Brown, 52, is
extremely well known in some circles. “Brené
taught me that leadership requires admitting
what you don’t know instead of pretending to
know everything,” Melinda Gates says in an
email. “I love her message that vulnerability is
the key to building trust.” Other avowed fans
include Hollywood celebrities Reese Witherspoon, Amy Adams, and Kristen Bell; Laverne
Cox, star of Orange Is the New Black, recently
told Vanity Fair that Brown is one of her favorite
writers—along with bell hooks, James Baldwin,
But Brown’s name still gets blank looks
in many quarters. She’s working on changing
that this year, with a new book and a business
reinvention and some other big plans to
promote her work to people who don’t
usually go for research that, as Brown
acknowledges, sometimes gets dismissed
as “touchy-feely” stuf.
A PhD and research professor at the Univer-
sity of Houston’s Graduate College of Social
Work, Brown spent years studying the concepts
of shame and vulnerability. Through her “grounded theory”
research—a methodology of collecting and coding interviews
and other data sets—she started fnding patterns of behaviors
and drawing some basic but uncomfortable conclusions, includ-
ing: We all fail. But ignoring, or just recognizing, those failures
isn’t enough. Real leadership can happen only when we
embrace our imperfections, work to overcome them, and take
risks—when we are brave, in Brown’s parlance, and when we
“challenge the false stories we make up when we experience
Part of what makes Brown’s work appealing is how she
frames her call for intense self-refection, by acknowledging
that she struggles with this process as much as anyone else.
“It’s much easier to talk about what we want and need than
it is to talk about the fears, feelings, and scarcity that get in the
way,” she writes in her latest sure-to-be-bestseller, Dare to
Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
It was that sort of personal admission that made her famous.
In 2010, a few months before the publication of her frst nonacademic book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown gave a
20-minute TEDxHouston Talk about her research, and the
emotional breakdown, and therapy, it caused her. Her performance was funny, touching, honest—and soon viral, watched by
some 35 million people. It launched Brown on a trajectory of
From Stage to Startup
Brown working the crowd at a leadership conference at
the Austin Convention Center in April, one of the 25 to 50
speaking gigs she does every year.
Brené Brown knows how to pause. She
knows how to take in a question, take in
a breath, and ... really, really pause.