Leaders, Beware of Numbing Behaviors

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I spent 19 years as a high school band teacher. This can be a big job—class sizes of up to 150 students, managing a budget of tens of thousands of dollars, and administering a hectic calendar of events and contests, many of which were on the weekends and involved travel. A team of researchers—Melissa L. Heston, Charles Dedrick, and Donna Raschke— conducted a study, Job Satisfaction and Stress among Band Directors. They studied job satisfaction and coping mechanisms of band directors dealing with this stress. They found that alcohol was listed as a prime coping mechanism for stress. Looking back, moderate alcohol use and maximum video game use, became my numbing mechanisms during early stressful weeks in teaching. One faculty I was a part of did regular Friday happy hours at a colleague’s home.

Numbing is a way to put on armor to avoid vulnerability.

This is a minor topic in Dare to Lead, covered in a couple of pages in the section on leadership that is “armored” versus “daring.”

Brené is very open in this area, which serves as a model of vulnerability. She drank too much, ate too much, smoked, and obsessed about some things. But her story includes something striking to me: she didn’t overdo these things so much that it was extremely noticeable. Lots of people smoke (unfortunately), have a daily drink or two to “take the edge off,” and eat a little too much. This keeps people from noticing that there’s a problem. 

In the books and in her talks, she shares her commitment to quit drinking and smoking back in 1996. This big step, and her openness about it, is powerful. But it brings this to mind:

Because so many numbing behaviors are socially acceptable, they can sneak up on us, like they did to Brown. I’ve worked with teams that encounter a lot of pressure to deliver, and most team outings involve alcohol. I’m not going to lecture on mixing work and alcohol— others can do that—but I am going to point out that habits can sneak up on us, and leaders ought to be vigilant.

One of my favorite colleagues doesn’t drink much, and like Brown, is a role model for others. Once, we needed to connect and catch up and I proposed “coffee, lunch, or drinks.” Her response was “lunch sounds good, or a walk; remember, I don’t do ‘drinks.’”


This is the third post in a short series featuring the work of Brene Brown. Specifically, her book Dare to Lead. Read the introduction post to this series here.
Post #1: Leaders Know the Myths of Vulnerability
Post #2: Leaders Understand the Pitfalls of Perfectionism and Fear of Failure

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