Shame holds leaders back from their own greatness.
Shame can be healed, freeing the leader to grow into his greatness. This story illustrates how one leader’s shame almost cost him a key supportive relationship and opportunities to grow into his true potential.
How Shame Holds Leaders Back
My client Ken, his boss Marty, and I were reviewing Ken’s progress at the halfway mark in our coaching engagement. Marty highlighted the changes he was seeing in Ken’s leadership. Ken’s peers and direct reports also noted these changes and talked with Marty about the increasingly positive impact Ken was having. The review was going well.
Later in the conversation Marty asked Ken what he was doing to develop his successor and explained that Ken’s peers all had plans in place.
What happened next came out of left field. Ken bolted upright in his chair, eyes wide open, a look of fear on his face. He began to speak and turned a deeper shade of red with each passing word.
“Marty, all I ever hear from you is what I’m not doing. You don’t seem to appreciate that my time and energy are focused on generating 35% of the company’s revenue. Last week when I presented glowing Q3 numbers, you barely said a word.” The words pushed their way into the room with emotional force.
In a matter of a seconds, this bright, rational, high performing executive, known for remaining calm in challenging situations, became an emotional fire hose. I didn’t know what to make of it and intentionally allowed myself to stay with the experience, feeling the full force of what was happening. Unpleasant doesn’t begin to describe it. My own unhelpfulness, duly noted as well. I kept my attention on Ken; Marty, the tension in the room; my own physical sensations, emotions and thoughts. The AHA moment arrived the next day.
SHAME! That’s what flashed across Ken’s face.
Shame so painful and threatening that he immediately averted it with a blanket of anger and its extreme cousin - rage.
The Pot of Gold on the Other Side of the Rainbow
- Shame is one of our most painful emotions. It cuts to our core, because it means
- I’ve done something bad and am deeply flawed
- Marty’s feedback triggered Ken’s shame, but the source was something old and painful
- To heal shame we have to feel it, but
- We don’t want to touch it, never mind invite it to stay for a visit
- We’re more willing to undergo painful healing procedures if we trust the person administering them is competent, caring and compassionate
- When shame holds leaders back, the pain of touching shame to heal it, needs to be worth the pot of gold on the other side
Shame Meets Compassion
When I understood Ken’s reaction as shame, I met, and felt compassion for, the injured child he once was. That compassion accompanied me to our meeting, where I shared:
- What I saw and experienced in Ken’s reaction to Marty’s feedback
- It was holding him back from reaching his true potential, because without feedback it’s difficult to increase self awareness, the foundation for growth.
- Marty is Ken’s advocate but his reaction to the slightest hint of negative feedback strains their relationship and risks alienating Marty.
- I’d seen the two of them engage in creative, playful and productive problem solving. Each made the other better, brighter, greater
- Marty could discover and resolve the shame that led to his reaction. The pain would be worth the potential he’d unleash unleash and I’d be by his side.
Marty agreed, and we started our real work, healing the shame that holds leaders back.
Check one of my go to experts on healing shame, Tara Brach.