Leadership and Shame

Shame is that ter­ri­ble emo­tion that iso­lates us in a par­tic­u­lar­ly nasty way. To expe­ri­ence shame is to be con­demned and, in part at least, it is we who are doing the con­demn­ing. In the end the expe­ri­ence just leaves us to hurt. Brené Brown, the writer, speak­er and researcher cur­rent­ly most asso­ci­at­ed with the top­ic of shame, calls it:

the intense­ly painful feel­ing or expe­ri­ence of believ­ing that we are flawed and there­fore unwor­thy of love and belonging.

She also makes the point that shame is not eas­i­ly dis­cussed and that it is often a source of fear. I’d say, in deep agree­ment with her work, that even fear can be a more acces­si­ble, less trau­mat­ic emo­tion than shame. We very quick­ly ratio­nal­ize, cov­er over and dis­guise the shame by trans­mut­ing it into the fear of some­thing else. We may say we have “a fear of fail­ure,” for exam­ple, but what that actu­al­ly means is that we feel ashamed when we fail and so we fear that experience.

Exact­ly how much of a per­son­’s life is con­trolled by shame varies, of course. Some pur­port­ed lead­ers seem to live with­out it — to their detri­ment. But for many oth­ers, shame is a hid­den killer some­thing like high blood pres­sure. It’s there, and it’s insid­i­ous. It takes its toll from the inside out while we pre­tend to be cop­ing. The social faux-pas in a con­ver­sa­tion, the mis­sent email, the imper­fect pre­sen­ta­tion, the bad joke, the weak response to an aggres­sive col­league, the lit­tle hypocrisy you caught me in; what­ev­er the inad­e­qua­cy, it goes into the dark­ness of what we don’t want to feel. In return, out comes the reac­tiv­i­ty, frus­tra­tion, “unin­tend­ed” put-downs of oth­ers, or a shut-down of our­selves we real­ly can’t even see. It’s our Shad­ow exact­ly — what we are ashamed of; what we can’t accept and have to quick­ly explain away.


There’s a sto­ry about Robert Bly, the poet also known as a leader of the men’s move­ment. One day years ago at a large gath­er­ing, one of the par­tic­i­pants decid­ed to take Robert on. The man spon­ta­neous­ly stood before the group and crit­i­cized Robert for a vari­ety of fail­ings and incon­sis­ten­cies. When the man was done, Robert paused and then com­ment­ed, “I don’t think I’ll let you shame me today.” 

That’s a line that is wor­thy of remem­ber­ing as a leader, one you can use with your­self. When you hear the awful inte­ri­or voic­es and the feel­ing of sink­ing into the ground over­whelms you, recall Robert’s words and say back to those voic­es: “I don’t think I’ll let you shame me today.” For most of us, most of the time, that would be a very con­struc­tive thing. It would help lessen the chances of the more nar­cis­sis­tic, arro­gant, threat­en­ing, sham­ing or self-sab­o­tag­ing replies you or I might give out­ward­ly to the world and the peo­ple around us — caus­ing even more shame. Instead, by hon­or­ing an inner leader who is able to sus­tain the chal­lenge and tol­er­ate the pain until it nat­u­ral­ly recedes, we find our­selves will­ing to lis­ten more inten­tion­al­ly, con­scious­ly. Maybe then we will see in the moment that an apol­o­gy for our own behav­ior is in order and we can give it freely. Per­haps there will just be a prob­lem to solve. Maybe we will see that it is time to clar­i­fy and main­tain a dif­fi­cult stand where we are tru­ly alone. Maybe it will be a moment of life-chang­ing, aware­ness-cen­tered rebellion. 

The point is, shame and the fear of shame do not do well in the dri­ver’s seat. They tend to run the car into a pri­vate ditch or into very pub­lic oncom­ing traf­fic. When it hap­pens, bet­ter to gen­tly steer the car to the side of the road, take out the map, read­just the seat­belt, and after a few moments to recu­per­ate (and maybe call a friend) learn to dri­ve on. 

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  • When it comes to shame, we need to accept our shad­ows, the dark and the light, and the grace of them.

    There is noth­ing that we deserve that is to be ashamed of because every­thing is acceptable.

    and we must for­give our­selves for any­thing that we have ever done to shame our­selves or any­one else.

    and at the end of the day shame teach­es us grace on a pro­found level.

  • Hi Dan,

    So very impor­tant to write about shame — the very dark emo­tion that even many of the most open to their feel­ings, ignore. There is so much to be said about shame, but lit­tle is. Unex­plored, we hide shame in our deep­er recesses. 

    I agree with you — fear’s more acces­si­ble — and accept­able, at some lev­el. We can talk about our fears more eas­i­ly than the place that we believe sep­a­rates us from those we love and the things we want. 

    Brene Brown struck a deep chord — we can’t leave it there. She’s cor­rect in describ­ing the deep pain that often accom­pa­nies shame. The I’m not-enough­ness that so often keeps shame embed­ded and hidden.

    There’s the per­son­al — and the social — that class, race, gen­der and so many oth­er cul­tur­al issues con­tribute to the stig­ma of shame. 

    Yet, I do believe, as with all emo­tions, that shame can have its pur­pose — per­haps as in your link to those “pur­port­ed lead­ers” who absent shame com­mit fool­ish and even heinous acts towards others. 

    Shame’s a com­plex emo­tion and I am thank­ful that you shed some light and gave it some air­time. Well done, as always.


  • Dear Lol­ly~

    I agree with the con­nec­tion you make to grace. Hav­ing fall­en into the pit, we may find that angel.
    As always, thank you for shar­ing your wis­dom and being part of the unfolding.

    All the best

  • Dear Louise~

    Of course as I wrote this post I felt I was bare­ly scratch­ing the surface! 

    Like you, I am con­vinced that it is shame’s invis­i­bil­i­ty and undis­cuss­abil­i­ty that gives it so much pow­er. I believe that at it’s worst we come as indi­vid­u­als and as groups to expect to be shamed. We’re look­ing for it and we find it, and we give it in return with­out acknowl­edg­ing how our hurts are being passed along . This entire region of our emo­tions and behav­iors seems to be blan­ket­ed with fog — maybe it is the fog. Clear­ly, it is time to begin blow­ing the mist away, acknowl­edg­ing our expe­ri­ences for what they are, and for who we are. 

    I also agree, Louise, that shame has it’s role. It’s not an all or noth­ing propo­si­tion. And in this way it may be one of the places we are most emo­tion­al­ly unin­tel­li­gent. That’s okay as long as we know we don’t know. The not know­ing guides us to explore and to share our dis­cov­er­ies. Like every­one, I’ve had my share of sham­ing and self-sham­ing — wound­ing — expe­ri­ences, and in the end, as Lol­ly men­tioned, some part of grace also arose in the process. 

    This is def­i­nite­ly the domain of mutu­al learn­ing, and I am so glad you are here as a learn­ing part­ner. May I invite you to think about writ­ing your own post on shame? It would be a treat to tap your wis­dom, too. Per­haps this is some­thing we might even, in some way, do together.

    All the best

  • Dan,

    This is a beau­ti­ful post. We are all so very ten­der. I will take with me the wise words you share today.


  • Ter­ri~

    So well said: “We are all so very ten­der.” Indeed, indeed! 

    Thank you so much for stop­ping by–

    All the best

  • Very telling post Dan w/ a very pow­er­ful sin­gle mes­sage: Each of us is capa­ble of learn­ing with­out shame. 

    Thank you for ring­ing this mes­sage out loud and clear!


  • Hi Dan,
    You so beau­ti­ful­ly write about shame here.
    There does seem to be two types: the shame that is linked to remorse, which can be con­struc­tive if we use it to access remorse when we have done some­thing tru­ly hurt­ful; and the tox­ic shame we feel in the cor­ners of our being — the under­ly­ing belief that we are “fatal­ly flawed” or “not good enough”.
    I love the Robert Bly sto­ry. I am a huge fan of hav­ing an inner leader and I would add that for some­one who has been let­ting shame lead their inner world for a long time, a stronger retort is more effec­tive: “No. There is no need for shame.”

  • Dear Kate~

    I love the way you’ve clar­i­fied the mes­sage — and that’s it exact­ly. If we can put a hand up to stop enough of it, we can learn and then decide for our­selves how to best move for­ward. Thanks, Kate!

    All the best

  • Dear Blair~

    You are right, of course, there are many poten­tial respons­es, some more crisp than oth­ers, depend­ing on the per­son. I con­tin­ue to like Bly’s, as his was the very first one I’d heard of, that is until a ther­a­pist sug­gest­ed to me there might be a whole dia­logue with shame. We had fun with that one, let me tell you, and in the end I learned some­thing about hav­ing an inter­nal ring of fire.

    It’s always a plea­sure to get your take on this stuff, Blair, and as usu­al you’ve added an essen­tial piece to the dis­cus­sion. Thank you!

    Many best wishes

  • […] Dan Oestre­ich wrote an enlight­en­ing post called Lead­er­ship and Shame. Shame hap­pens to be one of the most destruc­tive core issues we have in soci­ety. In one of the […]

  • Found this post through Saman­tha Hal­l’s sim­i­lar post. Thanks for shar­ing this. Illuminating!

    We always hear that the most pow­er­ful neg­a­tive emo­tions are Fear and Anx­i­ety: after read­ing your post, I’m con­vinced that shame is prob­a­bly a com­bi­na­tion of those two, and per­haps dou­bly potent!

    Thanks Dan!

  • Hi Vince!

    Thanks for stop­ping by. “Dou­bly potent” is exact­ly the sense I get, too — a nice choice of words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Vince, and hope you will return again!

    All the best

  • […] prob­lems and stress­es from which we must heal, not the oth­er way around. In the last two posts, here and here, I’ve explored the neg­a­tive impacts of shame, per­son­al and orga­ni­za­tion­al. Today it […]

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