A month back I unexpectedly found myself at a newly founded bookclub and was confronted with the fact that over the last years I really haven’t been reading much (Harry Potter fanfiction excluded). That’s not a bad thing if I wouldn’t actually enjoy reading, but I do and I have a whole bunch of books still on my list. True to myself, when I decided to catch up on those, instead of picking one book from the list I started in something I accidentally ran into on social media: Brene Brown’s latest book ‘Dare to Lead’ (if you think this has nothing to do with you because surely you’re not a leader, think again: if you want to inspire change, you’ll soon discover you have a tribe to lead).

Leadership is a topic that’s been fascinating for me for years, especially around the time when I was messing up big trying to lead a software team (lessons learned, so very many lessons learned :)) so I was curious before even lifting the digital cover. In the end, I highlighted around one third of the book, it’s that good. Not only is it very insightful and no-nonsense (which can be hard if like Brene you write about the emotional side of leadership), it’s also very practical and applicable. And Brene is a great storyteller.

Between shame and guilt

One of the biggest eye openers for me was her explanation of the differences between shame and guilt and the implications these have for driving change.

Apparently, even though shame and guilt often feel very similar to us, they are fundamentally different.

  • Guilt is a feeling where we admit to ourselves that we’ve made a mistake and out of empathy we want to improve or fix things. The key word here is empathy.
  • Shame is different. Shame is the feeling of ‘oh no, I’ve made a mistake, now I’m going to be judged’. Shame originates in fear, fear of being rejected and shut out by our communities. While empathy is focused on our environment, shame shuts us down and before we know it we find ourselves in ‘fight or flight’, doing anything to cover up the fact we screwed up. 

Just to illustrate this, some behaviors originating in shame are perfectionism (never thinking your work is good enough out of fear of not meeting others’ standards), defensiveness and shifting the blame (being afraid of admitting your mistake and face the consequences). When we feel shame, most of our energy is focused on avoiding being judged, rather than actually improving what we do.

Leading from a place of fear

It took me a few days to process, but then I realized this is exactly why hopeful messages make for inspiring leaders (think Martin Luther King), while preachers leave us frustrated  (shaming ignorance or other choices, sharing images of violence against people and animals and spicing all of this up with a big amount of indignation). I still remember my ex-boyfriend telling me when we just started dating: “you being a vegetarian is a big red flag for me, vegetarians are always so judgemental”. He’s not wrong. The more we tend to invest in decisions that feel morally right to us, the easier it becomes to shame those who don’t make the same decisions. But to what result? Instead of accomplishing the change we crave, we simply alienate people who surround us. They don’t want to feel our judgement and rejection and they do not want to feel their own shame (I’m saying ‘they’ now, but you could as easily say ‘we don’t want to feel judgement and rejection’: we all have areas where we’re the accused party and those where we’re the judge).

Leading from a place of empathy

So what do we do if we actually want to inspire others and change things?

Lots of things. One of them is that we need to find ways to create safe environments, where those around us feel accepted and know they won’t be liked any less for making mistakes. Where they can take the time and space they need to embrace changes in a pace that feels comfortable for them.

We need to honor the craving for love and acceptance each of us has inside.

And set an example, becoming role models for our tribes and inspiring them to a new way of thinking and a new way of living.

One that’s originating in empathy, not fear.