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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