The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.
Leadership and the Paradox of Shame
Ninety percent of successful business executives are driven by shame. Psychology Today defines shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another. It’s an attitude toward self. Nobody needs to look long to see the roots and vines of shame snaking through my life.
Shame is a powerful motivator. I was afraid to being a failure, so I graduated in the top 20 percent in the corps of engineer officer academy. I dreaded being last in any race, so I drove my body until I reached Team USA status. I feared disappointing my parents, so I strove to be a senior vice-president. One boss told me I wore the wrong clothes, so I revamped my wardrobe to keep from being harassed. Shame became my identity.
It begins in youth. We are shamed by parents, educators, coaches, friends, and clergy. If we chose to believe the lies, our identity falls prey to …
The paradox of shame. On one hand, it’s an emotional prison. On the other, it’s a fuel for success.
I was led to believe I was never good enough. Never as smart as my eldest brother and sister. I never could score as many soccer goals as my middle siblings. For every mistake and failure to meet his expectations, Dad shamed me. If a scoop of ice cream slid off my cone, Mom called me an idiot. They labeled my adolescent tomfoolery criminal. They didn’t know any better.
The year I earned my master’s degree and got promoted to Army captain was a big deal for me. Yet my mother exclaimed, “You still have to prove yourself.” Shame was my parents’ subconscious method of motivation.
Following their ingrained model, I leveraged shame to my advantage. I had to prove to men that I was a man. I had to prove to women that I was desirable. I had to prove to the world that I was worthy of accolades. Shame drove me to accomplish some amazing things. In order to feel good about myself, I had to be number one in everything. All false beliefs.
I even used shame in my leadership practice. I’d shame others to get the results I desired. I subtly made people feel bad under the label of motivation. While the intent was OK, the technique was pitiful. I would belittle and criticize others openly. Often, it was not so much what I said but my body language. I would make others feel bad until they relented and did things as I wanted them done.
The day someone exposed my shame, I embraced it. Twisted thinking! I loved the benefit. The power. If I let go of shame, what would happen to my drive? How would I motivate my staff? Would I still be number one? Would I still accomplish great things? Would men still admire me and women find me attractive?
Crazy, right? It’s called deception.
Shame infiltrated my DNA. Can I reverse the curse? Yes! But at what cost? At what benefit? Is it worth the risk? What if I fail? What if I lose the admiration of friends, family and industry? What if it costs me all that I have gained?
I’ve really been searching and examining myself. How do I escape shame? How do I stop shaming others?
It comes down to releasing myself and others to be who they were created to be. If that means I’m not president of the United States, so what? If I don’t make the team, so what? If people no longer seek me out, so what? Easier said than done.
Truth: better to live in freedom than in bondage to a lie. Shame creates a void that will never be filled despite the drive it creates. And for a leader, the higher status you attain, self-deceit can spiral out of control. The only way to escape this vortex of deception is to jump. Forget what others think. It is about you and me being who we really are, despite title.
Then how do we fill the void once we denounce shame? It zeros back to identity. Figure it out and live who you were created to be. To be self-reliant is to dig a deeper hole and still never be good enough. Instead, reach out for help. Continuously explore faith. You’ll be a work in progress, as am I. Messy, yet loveable. Redeemable. Worthy.
Thoughts on work relationships and the keys to escape:
- Acknowledge shame-driven ways (you might need to ask a friend).
- Apologize for manipulating through shame.
- Replace shame with sincere encouragement.
- Do not tolerate shame from others.
- Exhort your teams to be all they can be, no strings attached.
- Tell them it’s OK to be something different than what you may have wanted
- Surround yourself with truth-tellers who will call you out on shame tactics.
- Hold fast to your true identity.
- As you become free, they will become free
- When you remain imprisoned, so do they.
One more thing. I believe it is probable that by operating in the opposite spirit of shame, your teams will shine brighter than you ever envisioned! They may not look or act like you, but they’ll be free to be their best. Better to be mortal and free rather than super successful and emotionally imprisoned.
Shame is the new “Hotel California.” You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.
Thankfully, there is an escape route out of the vortex. Break free with me.
Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.