If you think dealing with issues like worthiness and authenticity and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line or attendance or standardized test scores, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. It underpins everything.

–-- Brene Brown

On Worthiness

In many ways, wor­thi­ness is the very first and the very last top­ic of lead­er­ship. From the start a leader is some­one who is con­cerned with know­ing and rely­ing upon his or her self-val­ue. With­out it the per­son who wants to lead, to cre­ate change, to bring peo­ple togeth­er around a new idea or move­ment all too eas­i­ly becomes immo­bi­lized by self-cri­tique or blame of oth­ers. Why? Because lead­ing means break­ing through old struc­tures, old per­son­al and social pat­terns, which is dif­fi­cult work requir­ing the ener­gy of faith and trust — of wor­thi­ness — to express itself in action. And last, the leader is also con­cerned with the sense of wor­thi­ness that oth­ers pos­sess because it is the fun­da­men­tal nour­ish­ment that enables them to par­tic­i­pate freely and to lead them­selves. One could say, in fact, that what gen­uine lead­ers do is con­ta­gious­ly release big dos­es of wor­thi­ness with­in oth­ers so that togeth­er pos­i­tive change can happen. 

There can, how­ev­er, be great con­fu­sion between self-esteem and self-worth. Kristin Nef­f’s work on self-com­pas­sion — see this Ted Talk — explains the dif­fer­ence between the two. Self-esteem is about being bet­ter than oth­ers in order to feel good about one­self. Self-com­pas­sion (which I would say reflects true wor­thi­ness) is about pro­found self-care in the face of adver­si­ty. Wor­thi­ness to me is what stands beyond com­par­i­son with oth­ers, mov­ing us to more transper­son­al ground and giv­ing us a spir­i­tu­al point of con­nec­tion with still­ness, peace, and the love that is our uni­ver­sal human root. Wor­thi­ness is dis­cov­ered and received out­side the small­er egoic self that must aggres­sive­ly and cre­ative­ly fake it while drown­ing in shame, anx­i­ety and anger. “True self love is the love the ocean has for the wave,” is the way writer and thinker Umair Haque puts it. Though we use dif­fer­ent terms for wor­thi­ness, they point in one direc­tion — which is a total con­trast to self­ish, arro­gant or nar­cis­sis­tic ways. Fol­low­ing Kris­ten Nef­f’s descrip­tion of self-com­pas­sion, wor­thi­ness is the inner reas­sur­ance that helps us get past the very moments when egoic self-esteem fails.


The con­fu­sion between self-esteem and wor­thi­ness in lead­ers is par­tic­u­lar­ly dan­ger­ous. The leader who relies on self-esteem, on being “bet­ter than” oth­ers (and help­ing oth­ers feel “bet­ter than,” too) may well attract fol­low­ers, but the entire move­ment is premised on what it is against and in com­pe­ti­tion with, rather than reflect­ing the light of what it is for. The con­se­quences are destruc­tive because the only way to sus­tain the esteem is to low­er the val­ue of oth­ers, over and over, cre­at­ing an inner cir­cle, a dog­ma, a new ene­my every­day. It is the path to rigid­i­ty, con­flict, para­noia and, and ulti­mate­ly, bru­tal­i­ty called out as “win­ning.”

How then does one “come upon” this intrin­sic wor­thi­ness? Is it so elu­sive? For sure­ly if it already was the uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence, we would­n’t be where we are as a soci­ety. In my own expe­ri­ence, the process of uncov­er­ing this wor­thi­ness has been incre­men­tal, the result of mak­ing very dif­fi­cult deci­sions, of com­ing to terms with emo­tion­al pain, of build­ing and repair­ing rela­tion­ships, sur­ren­der­ing to ardu­ous cir­cum­stances, and also of find­ing clues, often in works of art — a nov­el, a spir­i­tu­al tract, a piece of music, a paint­ing or pho­to­graph, a poem (such as Mary Oliv­er’s The Jour­ney). It would not be accu­rate to say the process has been chal­leng­ing all the time. There have been plen­ty of moments of joy, tran­scen­dent engage­ment, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and con­nec­tion, of hold­ing a high­er pur­pose, of lov­ing and giv­ing. And there was one very spe­cial med­i­ta­tive insight about the role of beau­ty, silence, time­less­ness and com­mu­ni­ty in my life and work. But the truth for me is that the wor­thi­ness I feel has more often emerged out of dark­ness than light.

This has made me sen­si­tive to how we lead­ers often want sim­ple, exter­nal or ana­lyt­i­cal answers to our prob­lems that do not require us to delve too much into the painful­ly emo­tion­al but poten­tial­ly self-rev­e­la­to­ry aspects of our circumstances: 

• A young man­ag­er strug­gles with a deci­sion to leave her job or stay. She may want to make a deci­sion in a way that does not hurt her pride but that is a tall order giv­en her cir­cum­stances, and what­ev­er way she turns she may expe­ri­ence embar­rass­ment, doubt, and guilt. Some­how she must find an angel with­in to guide her. 

• A high-lev­el admin­is­tra­tor must make sure every­thing is done right, even if he has to do it him­self. He has dif­fi­cul­ty del­e­gat­ing, of course, but his boss is also wor­ried about him phys­i­cal­ly — his hyper-atten­tion to mis­takes and pos­si­ble mis­takes stress­es him. Some­how he must expe­ri­ence his val­ue beyond mere per­for­mance and achievement. 

• A con­sul­tant has received con­sid­er­able feed­back that his work plan will fail with his client. He goes ahead any­way, assert­ing the plan “should” work but pri­vate­ly wor­ried that he absolute­ly must be right in the face of the feed­back in order to prove his skills and knowl­edge. Pre­dictably, the work fails and he is fired. Some­how he must find a way out of his humiliation.

• A small man­age­ment team has dif­fi­cul­ty dis­cussing a com­pa­ny’s real­i­ties, the mis­trust that exists, the prob­lems with pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and morale. Instead the team works on triv­ial issues, as guid­ed by the team’s leader who fears open­ing up the real prob­lems and who “takes every­thing per­son­al­ly.” Some­how she must find the courage to tack­le those prob­lems head on with her team’s help. 

How can we find this place of wor­thi­ness in the face of our own denials, ratio­nal­iza­tions, blam­ing of oth­ers and self-sab­o­tag­ing behav­iors? This mil­lion dol­lar ques­tion may seem almost unan­swer­able. Kristin Neff would say it is in being kind to our­selves instead of crit­i­cal, accept­ing our flawed selves and our human­i­ty, and learn­ing to be tru­ly mind­ful of the suf­fer­ing we expe­ri­ence rather than stuff­ing it or deny­ing it. These are beau­ti­ful answers. To them I would add the notion that we all have inte­ri­or doors and win­dows that lead us out of our small­er selves, and when we learn to open them, it is what comes into us from “out there” that is the key. The point is that you can­not gen­er­ate wor­thi­ness entire­ly on your own and out of noth­ing. But it comes, if invit­ed — and espe­cial­ly in the tough moments when there is absolute­ly noth­ing else you can do. There is, I believe, beneath every­thing a kind of cos­mic reas­sur­ance that we are good, that we are enough, that we are deserv­ing, and that embed­ded in this expe­ri­ence is all of our true courage, our love, our trust in one anoth­er, and our abil­i­ty to do the right thing. Our fun­da­men­tal whole­ness is giv­en, not made. It is the expe­ri­ence of this birthright, belief, and (for me) fact that brings me happiness.

And how then do we open those doors and win­dows more fre­quent­ly to what we are all part of? 

Well, there I’m afraid you must find your own prac­tice, but per­son­al­ly I like to take walks in the moun­tains, get my feet wet in the ocean and, every so often, go down to the riv­er and just wait.

Green River

RSS and email sub­scrip­tion, occa­sion­al Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship newslet­ter, search and oth­er func­tions may be found at the “Fur­ther Infor­ma­tion” tab at the bot­tom of the front page.

Pin­ter­est users, you can pin pic­tures from this weblog via this Board.


  • Hel­lo my friend! 

    I want­ed to take a moment to com­ment since I haven’t in awhile and I want­ed you to know I read your post! 

    I was going to wait until I fin­ished my nutri­tion assign­ment but that might take me the rest of the evening so I thought I bet­ter do it while it is on my mind. 

    Wor­thi­ness. I would love to say that just the word felt light to me, yet it still does­n’t. It remains to be a heavy word. Yes, I know the ‘intel­lec­tu­al’ definitions… 

    Now ask me how much of my day do I spend in total com­mu­nion with my own sense and belief in wor­thi­ness? Or any­one for that mat­ter? Who can say they feel this at all times? 

    I know not a soul. Not one. 

    Heck, much of the time is spent just try­ing to accept what I feel from one moment to the next with­out hav­ing to pre­tend I don’t feel it most of the time! 

    …Yes.…this makes me angry. (But you aren’t ‘sup­posed’ to feel anger.…if you do, you aren’t enlight­ened or spir­i­tu­al enough.…)

    …I’m not feel­ing sat­is­fied with my life at the moment. (Then you must not be feel­ing grate­ful enough and should be appre­ci­at­ing all that you have.…) 

    …I don’t like x,y,z.…(Quit being so neg­a­tive! You need to have a pos­i­tive attitude.…)

    I could write a list here that goes on for eternity.…

    The point is we are bom­bard­ed both with­in and on the out­side with mes­sages that ‘argue’ with not only our sense or expe­ri­ence of wor­thi­ness but also our abil­i­ty to sim­ply ACCEPT what we are expe­ri­enc­ing at any giv­en moment. 

    Per­haps one of the keys to embrac­ing wor­thi­ness is in learn­ing how to accept what we feel and expe­ri­ence at any giv­en moment with­out being forced (by our­selves or oth­ers) to deny it in the first place.

    I want to say that life isn’t always a bowl of cher­ries. My life is beyond busy right now and I’m hop­ing it is only for a sea­son. Some­thing I must endure to get from point A to point B. Oth­er­wise, I would­n’t be doing it! (my brain hurts with all this studying!)

    Also when it comes to lead­er­ship itself, I wrote some­thing a long time ago and it’s on my tweets page of my web­site. I wrote this quote:

    The #1 trap of #lead­er­ship is set in the begin­ning w/ inten­tion. The moment we pre­sume some­one else is #infe­ri­or to ourselves.’

    Now I don’t believe you are com­ing from this place…this is sim­ply what came to mind when you spoke of lead­er­ship in the con­text with wor­thi­ness. It remind­ed me of what I wrote and I believe it to still be part of the dilem­ma in leadership. 

    Lead­er­ship is still the ‘source’ of wor­thi­ness in the sense that as chil­dren, our ‘worth’ is mir­rored to us by our care­tak­ers, teach­ers, soci­ety, etc. So many grow up believ­ing that once in lead­er­ship them­selves, they car­ry this kind of pow­er over others…they can declare the worth of oth­er human beings. 

    I deem you ‘wor­thy’. I deem you of lit­tle to no worth at all. How? Based on how I treat you.…

    We do this to each oth­er day in and day out. 

    Declar­ing the wor­thi­ness of human beings based on how we treat them.

    And many lead­ers set them­selves up as an author­i­ty believ­ing they are some­how supe­ri­or to others…and need to ‘lead’ them. 

    In real­i­ty, that kind of rela­tion­ship is reserved for par­ents and children. 

    The rest is social struc­ture and ego. In my heart and mind. 

    Although I don’t mean to say that we don’t have things to share and teach one anoth­er. We do! The elder­ly has wis­dom the youth do not. And the youth has much to teach as well. 

    Thanks for shar­ing. And thanks for lis­ten­ing to my own ram­ble of thoughts…not meant to ‘solve’ any­thing at all. Sim­ply per­son­al expe­ri­ence and observation…at least for this moment. 

    Miss you!

  • Hi Saman­tha~

    Many beau­ti­ful thoughts, as always, cut­ting through the sur­face to get at the world under­neath, which is not always beau­ti­ful at all. And yes, I total­ly agree that lead­ers can get hooked on their eval­u­a­tions of oth­ers and can cre­ate ratio­nales why oth­ers need to be led. But this is just the small­er egoic thing oper­at­ing away on auto­mat­ic; the hook of self-esteem, the com­par­i­son of bet­ter and worse, an addic­tion often large­ly uncon­scious. That’s why the dis­tinc­tion between self-esteem and self-com­pas­sion may be use­ful. What isn’t use­ful are the judgments.

    I did anoth­er post not long ago on the “voic­es” of self-crit­i­cism. When you get a chance in what sounds like a very hec­tic sched­ule, you might like that one, too!

    All the best to you and take good care of your­self dur­ing this stren­u­ous time!


  • Thanks for shar­ing the link to the inner crit­ic post Dan. Very good break down! 

    I just fin­ished ana­lyz­ing my diet for a nutri­tion assign­ment so will book­mark your page so I can look at is more close­ly in the future.

  • Lots of inspir­ing insights here, and I’m glad to see I’m not the only per­son who reads your blog and feels inspired — and invit­ed — to elab­o­rate on what I find here.

    I had heard of Kristin Neff and her TED Talk, but nev­er watched it until I fol­lowed the link here, and I’m glad I did.

    I had not con­sid­ered the dif­fer­ence between self-esteem and self-com­pas­sion before. Esteem always involves a com­par­i­son (hold­ing some­one — pos­si­bly one­self — in esteem implies a rank­ing), and there­by a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, where­as com­pas­sion lit­er­al­ly means shared suffering.

    I can relate to wor­thi­ness often emerg­ing only through dark­ness. I recent­ly post­ed a few notes about my expe­ri­ence of let­ting go of blame and judg­ment dur­ing a retreat I attend­ed. One of the hard-wrought insights from that expe­ri­ence is that I felt inval­i­dat­ed and unwor­thy based on some­thing some­one else did, and the only way to avoid this in the future is to let go of my ten­den­cy to depend on oth­er peo­ple for val­i­da­tion (or wor­thi­ness). I have come to the con­clu­sion that val­i­da­tion (wor­thi­ness) must come from within.

    I’m curi­ous about your state­ment “you can­not gen­er­ate wor­thi­ness entire­ly on your own and out of noth­ing”. My lat­est think­ing is that it is not so much a mat­ter of gen­er­at­ing wor­thi­ness but of rec­og­niz­ing it (and per­haps that is what you mean here). In a recent med­i­ta­tion, Tara Brach read a quote from the Radi­ance Sutras that nice­ly cap­tures this perspective:

    There is a place in the heart where every­thing meets.
    Go there if you want to find me.
    Mind, sens­es, soul, eter­ni­ty, all are there.
    Are you there?

    Enter the bowl of vast­ness that is the heart.
    Give your­self to it with total abandon.

    Qui­et ecsta­sy is there -
    and a steady, regal sense of rest­ing in a per­fect spot.

    Once you know the way
    the nature of atten­tion will call you
    to return, again and again,
    and be sat­u­rat­ed with knowing,
    “I belong here, I am at home here.”

    Answer that call. 

  • Joe–

    Thank you so much for your com­ments, the links, and espe­cial­ly for the won­der­ful quo­ta­tion from the Radi­ance Sutras. When I read this excerpt, it reminds me imme­di­ate­ly of the place where I took the pho­tographs and cap­tures the full sense of what I meant by “going down to the riv­er” and “just waiting.” 

    I rec­om­mend to any­one read­ing this com­ment to check out Joe’s own blog post about his retreat. It is a pro­found com­ple­ment to the mes­sages I touch upon in this post.

    All the best, Joe!


  • This post and your con­ver­sa­tion came to me at the right time. You are my cos­mic sup­port! Thank you.

  • Lucy–

    I’m so glad this read­ing was of val­ue to you!

    All the best

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.