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Jargon, Exemplars, and Brene Brown

What’s up rhetoric nerds? Welcome back to RhetoricLee Speaking, a blog committed to banishing banality one speech at a time.

I am your hostess with the mostess, rhetoric professor Lee Pierce, she/they pronouns. For those of you new to the podcast I study rhetoric, meaning that I am basically Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.

Rhetoric, the study of “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

One of the best things that we can do as human beings trying to connect with other human beings and, in the process, hopefully improving this shit show of a world, is define our terms. Define them for ourselves, define them for other people, and be willing to have them re-defined. 

When you don’t define your terms, you exclude people and, worse, you exclude new thoughts from being born. By contrast, when you define your terms, you include people and, even better, you open yourself up to new ways of thinking because inevitably when you try to figure out you actually mean by the words you select, inevitably, you’ll find out that you don’t exactly know–you just grabbed whatever word was closest.

Let me illustrate how this works by looking at someone who is both all about inclusivity and, in my view, actually uses language rather exclusively: Brene Brown. If you don’t know Brown, she is sort of like Oprah except white and a business academic. Brown has built an extensive empire mostly on language and jargon and new terminology and quirky turns of phrases. 

In particular, I’ve been hearing a lot about the phrases “armored leadership” and “daring leadership” that Brown has put into circulation. In MORE particular, people have said to me both that I exhibit “armored leadership” and “could I listen more?” And that I exhibit “daring leadership” and “could I lead a workshop?”

That alone makes me not want to learn about a binary that I already know doesn’t work in practice. But it does make me want to learn about it so I can pick it apart for you! Conveniently, one of the most recent episodes of Brown’s podcast, “Daring to Lead,” is a 2-parter about this very subject. I’m going to work through the episode chronologically, play you a few illustrative snippets for closer examination, and give you a new vocabulary word: exemplar, which means, the most perfectest example.

But in case you’re not planning on sticking with me, let me give you the three takeaways from today’s episode up front:

  1. Jargon, sometimes called buzzwords, sometimes called slang, sometimes called bureaucratese, is basically non-standard language meant to bring into being non-standard thought. Jargon is inclusive and expands our collective understanding about the world when it is used carefully, defined, in tons of examples, and solves a problem by bringing a different awareness than other words in its orbit. However, jargon is exclusive and narrows our collective understanding about the world when it used in piles and lists (a rhetorical device known as amplificatio or sometimes enumeratio), when jargon is defined by referring to other jargon, when it is only supported by one or two perfect examples, and doesn’t seem to solve a problem by bringing more awareness then other words in its orbit.
  2. Exemplar is a word for the model of the model, the most perfect example, the “for instance” that makes the theory work perfectly. If you’re using exemplars to illustrate your jargon then you’re making that jargon inaccessible by not letting it come into contact with the real world, which is messy and complex. The name of Brown’s exemplar is Suzanne (you’re going to be hearing a lot about Suzanne today).
  3. Piling up jargon is great for creating brand followers and cult-like acolytes and people who will buy everything that comes out of your mouth and whose lives are exactly like yours. It also sells a lot of certified leadership coaching problems because it puts strategies for improvement out of reach, behind a wall of concepts and terminology and jargon, and requires we pay someone else to walk us through our own minds and lives. (FYI one of the first sentences out of Brown’s mouth in this episode is about her thousands of certified “Dared to Lead” trainers)

Those are your takeaways. Let’s unpack them in detail moving through this episode. Let’s start at about 12 minutes in, when Brown lays out the preview statement of the essay–her main talking points:

“Let’s go through types of armored leadership and the “indicator behaviors that ladder up to” “daring adventure of taking the armor off” and replace with “grounded confidence” (be in vulnerability, curious- “we know what it looks like and feels like. Common types of armor: being a knower (vs. learner), tapping out of hard conversations vs. skilling up and leaning in, using shame and blame to manage others vs. accountability and empathy.”

Brene Brown, Dare to Lead

How many jargon moves and piling up of jargon did you count? You’ve got “types of armored leadership” then the phrase “indicator behaviors” instead of just “indicators” because why did that need complication? “Laddering up” and the replacement of “armored leadership” with “grounded confidence” that then refers to vulnerability and curiosity and the cop-out statement, “we know what it looks feels like.”

Let’s pause there and see if I understand this. I, a person who currently uses armored leadership or wouldn’t be listening to this podcast, am supposed to take off my armor and replace it with “grounded confidence”–a thing that I presumably do not have given my armoredness…but “I know what it looks and feels like?”

That would be like me walking into a first day of public speaking class and saying, “so a lot of you are going to come up here nervous and stressed out and unsure of yourself and I want you to just work on dropping all of that and replacing it with a conversational presence; we know what that looks and feels like.”

It makes me pause, like, do I know what grounded confidence feels like? Does it mean I’m confident but I’m also, like, deeply breathing? Is me doing this podcast grounded confidence? Or just regular confidence? Is all confidence grounded confidence? If not, what’s the difference?

For the record, there is no podcast episode on grounded confidence in the Dare to Lead archive.

You can already tell how exclusionary and elitist this feels. And it’s not like I disagree, 12-minutes in, at a meta-level, I get what she’s saying and I’d give similar advice to someone who is “armored up” about public speaking. Brown’s jargon has extensively captured the problem we all face as leaders or whatever you want to call it, what I’m unconvinced by is that the jargon–of which there is a lot–promotes new understanding of the problem that is simultaneously accessible.

That seems to me like a lose-lose from the perspective of cultivating meaning. If you’re a Brown acolyte and you know all of this stuff enough to follow all of this, then you’re just going through the language-motions. I guess you could think of it like a leadership attitude top-off but, call me a communist, I don’t love the idea of a top-rated podcast in Spotify primarily just filling the already mostly full cup of people who are basically just Brene Brown. I looked it up, it is rated #25 in fact. If you would like to know where RhetoricLee Speaking is rated by comparison…well…so would I but they don’t chart that high, which is to say, low.

But I’m willing to be patient with Brown. So I kept going, trying to track all of these words and their relationship to one another and to other words like I am a leadership conspiracy theorist tacking colored string to pictures of missing persons and notes written on napkins on a giant corkboard in my office.

I’m waiting for an example. Because I figure all of this vocabularizing will eventually be brought home in some kind of concrete manner, which usually involves an example. At 18 minutes, the example arrives. Here it is:

“The other day I”m in this meeting–big rumble. Someone said: “not clear what problem we’re trying to solve.” Great question…Hold for halo effect/bandwagon effect…framing questions…“ask strategic questions” and is learning rather than falls into the trap of thinking they are valued because “they always have the answer.” “framing curiosity, framing strategic questions…all the right questions…all the time…super power…knower…seldom seen the value in only answers.”

Brene Brown, Dare to Lead

I mean, yeah, if Suzanne is the model for this framework of learning vs. knowing, then this all sounds amazing because Suzanne asks STRATEGIC questions, asks the RIGHT questions, at the RIGHT time, so much so, in fact, that it is a superpower and not just a regular power, which is what I was hoping I was going to get from the #25 podcast in Spotify. 

In rhetoric, we call examples like Suzanne “exemplars” because they’re not just some example, they’re the best of the best of examples–they illustrate the concept perfectly. They are the most excellent model of something. 

Ready for the irony? Using an exemplar to discuss a concept, especially a tricky concept like “knowing vs learning” is, itself, a KNOWER move. Because it’s designed to showcase the concept’s rock-solidness as a concept–as a knowledge. A learner move would be to push the concept against different examples to try and see where it fits, doesn’t fit, kind of fits, mostly fits, etc. 

Brown’s exemplary learner, Suzanne, is thus revealed in fact to not be a learner but to be a KNOWER–a knower who has mastered this impossible skill of asking the right strategic questions all of the time. 

Brown’s model can’t admit of the person who just really doesn’t understand and is holding up the entire class or meeting because they’re just not getting it. I’m not shitting on a learner mindset. I think a learner mindset is super helpful. The problem is that you can’t lead as a knower or as a learner and you can’t climb the corporate ladder or whatever Brown wants for you by learning rather than knowing. The reality is you have to know enough to know when you know and that’s the end of it JUST GET THE REPORTS DONE ALREADY WHY CAN’T YOU BE MORE LIKE SUZANNE?!….

…AND know enough to know when you don’t know enough and you need to learn. And you need to be learning at the same time because if you’re not learning then you don’t know enough but also you can’t just keep learning forever because you have to know that you will NEVER KNOW enough.

The jargon and the schematics and the words referring to other words and the single exemplar that is Suzanne tying it all together avoids this very paradox: how do you be a knower and a learner at the same time? When do you know enough to make a decision? And how do you know when a question is strategic and helpful vs. when it’s just dumb? Those are the questions I need answered because that’s how my life works. I can’t be a learner and not a knower. I can’t, as Brown puts it, “move across the spectrum” of learner to knower and knower to learner. 

I have to be a learner and a knower at the same time, all the time, including right now, as I write this podcast, where I am a knower but I’m also a learner.

None of Brown’s jargon gets me any closer to knowing how to do any of that. Er…learning…how to do any of that? I don’t even know/learn anymore….

Another thing I couldn’t stop considering through all of this advice about knowing vs. learning is who has all of this privilege and leisure to just be asking questions all of the time. I mean, yes, if you’re Suzanne and every question just makes you more and more valuable, then great. But a lot of us have to risk a lot to ask a question. People get fired asking too many stupid questions. And people get blacklisted, targeted, and harassed for asking too many GOOD questions. 

Brown actually acknowledges that point, quickly and almost imperceptibly, a few minutes before the episode ends.

Everyone that works for me, probably 30 of us, would tell you Brene has a very high tolerance for risk–failure and making mistakes. But only if you learn from failures and mistakes, talk openly, embed cultures. Mistake 3 i’m not good with that. Happened again. Dug deeper. Rumbled on it.

Brene Brown, Dare to Lead

Brown gives you a nice summary of her wholehearted, daring leadership approach that learns rather than knows for Mistakes 1 and 2. She digs. She rumbles. She talks openly. She embeds it within culture.


But, like, what happens with mistake #3? Inevitably, there is GONNA be a mistake #3. And as she said, she’s not good with that.

I assume at mistake #3 somebody gets fired. 

All of this taking risks and not being defensive and having courage and asking questions sounds amazing if you’re a person who can afford to get fired. If you’re not, then asking you to replace your armor with a liberated heart presumes you have the tolerance for risk that white able-bodied neurotypical upper class people have. 

And I know enough about Brown to know she isn’t entirely unaware of her privilege cluster. But if your awareness isn’t “embedded in your culture,” as she would put it, “embedded in your language,” as I would put it, then how much of an awareness is it, really?

And that gets us to the end of the episode. I had planned to do part 2 of “Daring vs. Armored Leadership” but I am so exhausted from skilling up my messy middle that I need time to pause with wholeheartedness and circle back when I can be courageous–am I using that right?

Instead, let me reiterate the takeaways.

Jargon can be exclusionary or inclusionary–it all depends on the rhetorical strategies you’re using when you use jargon.

Teaching people one or two new words or concepts, explaining them well, giving lots of examples–that’s great. That’s the sweet spot where jargon can invite people in to new ways of thinking. I hope to have done that with two words in this episode: sharp language and exemplar. Maybe I failed, but those are the two takeaways I hope you got. And they are both jargon, and one of them is the worst kind of jargon, fancy French jargon.

But even fancy French jargon can serve a really valuable purpose, purpose that Brown explains in a blog for Oprah’s website about buzzwords and the word authenticity. 

Brown writes:

In our culture, we love buzzwords and catchphrases—until we don’t. “Thinking outside the box” sounded exciting the first hundred times we heard it, but then it started to get on our nerves. It’s the same with “authenticity.” These days everything from potato chips to blue jeans is labeled authentic. The word is so overused that we’ve become numb to it—it’s almost lost its meaning.

The thing is, behind every buzzword is a legitimate problem we’re trying to solve. In the case of authenticity, it’s that we’re tired of fakery and Photoshopped perfection, of trying to live up to impossible ideals of beauty and happiness. I truly believe that most of us will take messy and real over flawless and inauthentic every time.

Brene Brown,

“Behind every buzzword is a legitimate problem we’re trying to solve.” That is not incorrect. Jargon and buzzwords and fancy vocabulary words at their best come into existence because it solves a problem.

If Brown is correct, it raises an important question about this particular episode of Dare to Lead and it is the SAME question from Brown’s infamous meeting with superpower question asker Suzanne: what problem are we trying to solve?

I just spent 30 minutes with this woman, which will be about 20 hours when all is said and done, and what problem have we been trying to solve? WHAT? TELL ME? Because I learned forty new phrases and words today all in the name of skilling up and leaning in and circling back and now I can legitimately say that I do now know what I’m supposed to do with any of it.

Well the problem is leadership, you might say. Of how to be a good leader.

Okay, great. How do you do that? 

You have to move from armored to daring leadership.

Okay how do you do that?

You have to replace your armor with grounded confidence.

Okay, what exactly is my armor?

Well, it’s being a knower rather than a learner.

Okay, and what does that mean?

It’s like asking really good questions instead of just knowing things.

And what makes a question good? Like, is this question good?

It’s strategic.

And what does that mean?

You know, it’s like, the right question at the right time.

Okay, and how do I know what that’s going to be?

I don’t know. You should ask Suzanne. It’s like her superpower.

And there you have it folks. Want to be a daring leader? You’d better call Suzanne. But if you’d rather just listen to me complain about Suzanne,  stay tuned for the next thing coming your way from RhetoricLee Speaking. While you wait, take a minute to post a review or tell anyone you know who can’t stop quoting Brene Brown to read this blog.

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