Seven Reasons Every Leader Needs to Understand Shame

No one wants to talk about shame. Isn’t that something that addicts talk shameabout? Or counselors? That’s good for them but most of us deal with more functional people who don’t have shame…right?

Brene Brown, research professor of shame and vulnerability at the University of Houston, would disagree. She says everyone has shame. It’s universal; and it has reached epidemic proportions.  Brown is often tapped by Fortune 500 companies to enhance work performance and spur innovation.

As both pastor and addiction consultant, I see shame on a regular basis; but not just in addicts. I see it in everyone… even leaders.

When most people think of leadership they think about vision casting, or speaking skills, or team building. I agree. But I  add to that list an understanding of shame.  It is one of the most misunderstood, underrated, and ignored topics in the field of leadership.

I want to change that. Here are seven reasons why.


  1. …is universal.  Shame is the feeling that comes over you when you feel like you don’t measure up to expectations. It causes you to take a flying leap of logic. Instead of telling yourself, “I fell short. I’ll try harder next time,” shame lies to you, saying, “Because you fell short you are worthless. You don’t belong. You should give up.”  Everyone hears this voice to some degree. Understanding this about people will put you way ahead of the leadership game. If you ignore shame you will miss the cues people  give off.  But if you a see it, you can speak to it and connect with people at a deeper level, releasing them to fulfill their potential.
  2. …drives our behavior. If you don’t understand shame you won’t understand why people do what they do. People invest an incredible amount of emotional energy compensating for their shame. Some people spend energy distracting themselves from it. Others become overachievers trying to prove their worth, while others spend time finding ways to sabotage themselves and self-destruct. If you understand shame you will better understand the people you lead and hopefully direct them away from this kind of negative and wasteful behavior.
  3. …blocks constructive feedback.  Shame-based people may not always show it but they find it hard to receive any kind of criticism since they already feel worthless.  Criticism is like salt in their wound. If you don’t understand this you might use the wrong approach to correct people. Some leaders default to an in-your-face management style. They don’t hesitate to call people out in front of peers intending to “motivate” them.  But more often than not this approach backfires. Simply adjusting your words, tone, and approach can turn a hostile situation into a positive one that promotes transformative results.
  4. … blocks innovation and creativity.  In her 2012 TED Talk, Brene Brown noted that she is increasingly being asked to speak on innovation in the workplace. What’s that got to do with her expertise on shame?  Everything.  She mentions how shame prevents us from risking  new ideas.  Old, tried and true ideas are safe. No one will criticize what works. Shame-based people cling to ideas they know will find approval. But creative, innovative ideas take heat…take scrutiny.  If companies, churches, and organizations want innovation they have to create an environment where people feel safe offering their out-of-the-box ideas.
  5. … blocks humility.  Jim Collins talks about a Level Five leader as someone who praises her team when things go well and takes responsibility for when things goes wrong. Collins says this is a picture of humility.  People with shame can’t do this. They need to take the credit when things go right because they live for affirmation. And they can’t take responsibility for mistakes because the weight of that is crushing to them. It only proves to them their worthlessness. Shame often masks as humility but it’s not.  The humble person believes in their worth but is able to set their status aside in order to help others. The shame-based person believes they are worthless and grasps at any bit of status they can. At the other extreme,  their lack of self-worth causes them to work with no recognition but quietly resent people for it. Both extremes are unhealthy.
  6. … blocks forgiveness. If you want to foster a culture of forgiveness and teamwork you need to understand shame. Forgiveness is a generous act. Shame can’t afford to be generous. When shame is hurt it strikes back, seeks sympathy, or suffers in silence… none of which your team can afford to embrace.  It doesn’t let go. It lives with the thought, “You owe me” and can rarely be satisfied.
  7. … drives many leaders.  I’ve observed that many people choose leadership or helping professions as a way to prove their worth.  They may be talented in these areas but the true driving force is their need to be needed.  But the trouble with this kind of leader is they can’t give what they don’t have. Leaders can only take people as far as they have gone themselves. If they are driven to be a leader to prove their worth then no matter how much success they achieve (and many are successful) it’s a hollow victory. They are never satisfied. Their value is always at the top of the next hill, the next market launch, the next campaign, or sermon.  Every good leader needs to have one eye on themselves  to ask what is motivating them. To be truly effective they need to eradicate their own shame first so their focus will be on helping others and not seeking approval for themselves.

Understanding shame doesn’t require a Ph.D. in psychology, just some basic insights into the inadequacy that often overwhelms people and how they compensate for it.

As a leader you owe it to yourself and the people you lead to understand shame. It’s not as sexy of a topic as vision casting or strategy development but your return on time invested in learning about shame will more than pay for itself.

Question:  How  have you seen shame impact your family or organization in a negative way? Leave your comment below and  “share  the knowledge” by clicking a link. Thanks.

  • Defining the Pain of Shame (
  • Overachievers and “Winners” Feel Shame Too (

4 thoughts on “Seven Reasons Every Leader Needs to Understand Shame

  1. Gwendolyn Badzinski

    Thanks Pastor Remy for sharing this information. It was insightful and touched my heart.

  2. Pingback: Study Guide 1: What Does the Bible Say About Shame? | F. Remy Diederich

  3. Pingback: introspection, courage, and shame « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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