LEADERS TURN GUILT INTO LESSONS 2023-10-02T01:31:46-04:00


This week I was talking with an esteemed leader who has earned the respect and admiration of everybody with whom he interacts – clients, vendors, colleagues, direct reports and peers from other organizations. He has revitalized his workplace and made it an acclaimed beacon within his profession, both locally and regionally.

And, like all of us, this leader acknowledged that he has issues to which he knows he needs to devote his attention. One of those issues is guilt.

You are familiar with that emotion, right? We all experience it from time to time, both in our personal lives and our work lives. The key questions for all leaders are:
-What do we do with our guilt?
-Do we use it to help ourselves or do we allow it to bring us down?
-Do we pause to really look at it or do we sink into self-recrimination and regret?
-Do we acknowledge it or do we pretend it is not there?

Many years ago a dear friend who was a priest at Georgetown University Law Center taught me a phrase that has stayed with me for decades: “Don’t should on yourself.” I have never forgotten those words and I use them frequently with my own leadership coaching clients, my friends and my adult children. When we use the word “should’ in the past tense, we are blaming ourselves and setting ourselves up for sadness or regret.

When I was a young leader, one of my mentors told me “Guilt is the most unproductive human emotion you can name. It does not accomplish anything positive.” As leaders, when we carry around guilt inside us, it weighs us down. The longer we carry it, the heavier it becomes. Before we know it, the guilt is something over which we perseverate, thinking about it during the work day and at night when we are trying to get to sleep.

When we allow guilt to fester and remain in place, we are blaming ourselves for something that has happened in the past and cannot be changed. It is done. It is over. It is final. Letting it dominate our thoughts prevents us from helping ourselves, helping our teammates and helping our clients. It blurs our vision.

So, knowing we all experience guilt as part of human day-to-day life, what can we do to address this feeling more productively?

We can follow several steps that will help us to move through this unhelpful emotion:
1. We can see it coming and acknowledge it: “Here I go feeling guilty again”
2. We can pause and explore the reasons for the guilt
3. We can reframe the guilt into another emotion like sadness, where we are not blaming ourselves
4. We can explore any patterns emerging, i.e., “I notice I always feel guilty when this happens”
5. We can ask ourselves the key question:” Instead of feeling guilty, what can I learn from this situation so I do not find myself here again?”
6. We can implement that lesson the next time we feel ourselves moving toward guilt
7. We can forgive ourselves for any mistakes we have made that produced the guilty feeling
Make time to explore your own relationship with this all-too-common emotion. Reflect on your own behavior patterns.

You can assess your own experience with and feelings about guilt and take proactive steps.

Efforts you pursue on this learning path will help you serve as a more effective leader.

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