Yes, we’ve all failed. But some failures can actually be celebrated. Sometimes it means you took a risk and you tried something new. While those failures are disappointing, they usually don’t leave any scars. Consider my friend Kirk who led a Silicon Valley start-up. Kirk’s business plan won Harvard’s award for the best new business plan that year. Seriously? Yep, it’s true.
It’s too bad the company failed the following year.
Kirk carried no long-lasting shame. The market just wasn’t ready for the company’s future technology. Venture capitalists loved Kirk; so he went on to lead other companies. His first start-up failed, but he was not a failure.
Kirk’s failure was not a character breakdown, but some of my failures have been, and that’s where shame comes in. Failing at moral issues brings an entirely different level of internal pain, guilt, and anxiety. That causes shame—how do I get rid of my shame?
My leadership shame represents the internal consequences for knowingly going against my values. It happens when I have done something wrong and attempt to keep it hidden. When others find out about it, my shame is magnified. Like when the internet first became available. Suddenly pornography was only a mouse click away. I had the hardest time resisting that temptation… I still remember feeling the hypocrisy between who I was and how I acted. My shame felt unbearable as result of going against my values.
Or the time a friend shared something confidential. I promised not to tell—but I did. So I became a liar AND I tried to make myself look better as a result. That’s just evil. My shame was long lasting, until I learned how to overcome my internal disgust. So how do I get rid of my shame?
First, I had to own it. I think this is the hardest step. We always want to make an excuse or say we’ll do better. Friend, just admit it and own it. “This is completely my failure and I’m responsible.” When you own it, then you can be part of the solution. Until then, it’s someone else’s fault. Don’t play the blame game—own it.
Second, admit that you have handled the response poorly and grieve. Don’t resist grief. Don’t run from it and don’t lean away. Always lean into grief. The pain is real. Acknowledge it because if you don’t deal with it now, it will come out later in some really messy ways. Don’t severely condemn yourself, thinking that you have to pay a penance. Instead, change your thinking and change your behavior. Sentencing yourself to 5 years of confinement in the dungeon of self-condemnation won’t help you but it will hurt others.
Third, forgive yourself. Harvard Review has talked about the necessity of forgiveness over a dozen times in the past five years. That’s not the Bible, that’s HBR! Why? Leaders who can’t forgive become toxic (and now they have the research to prove it). We all need forgiveness. Start with you.
A 2012 HBR Article notes “Shame is what keeps failure from becoming wisdom.” Wow, that’s powerful stuff. When I hide shame, it festers, becoming an unseen enemy. It embitters my mind in a way that comes with unintended consequences. Bitter people don’t think they are bitter. But we all know they are.
The Bottom Line: Shame is concealed and contagious; it tends to eat us alive. Shame-carrying leaders are especially toxic. They unknowingly spread their poison into the lives of others. Is that you? If you have the shame and bitterness but you don’t believe it is affecting those you serve: THINK AGAIN!