Leading with guilt

I was asked recenlty to present a keynote to a group of principals, the topic I was given began with "Leading Without Guilt…". It's not difficult to imagine how this topic may  have been arrived at, given the constant barrage of messages we see through the media and other sources about the 'failings' of our education system and where its weaknesses are. Inevitably, the relentlessness of these messages can build up a 'guilt complex' among those responsible for providing the quality teaching and learning that exists in our schools. 

Pondering how I might approach the topic, I went to my trusty Google search engine and typed in "why would leaders feel guilty?" to see if there might be an angle I could use. To my surprise, the whole of the first screen of search results came up with titles suggesting that guilt may be a defining quality of a good leader, with many of the links pointing to a recent study from Stanford University that suggests;

Guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, and that responsibility makes other people see them as leaders.

The report differentiates between the concepts of guilt and shame, noting that while many regard these as the same emotion, psychologists distinguish between the two. The understanding is that a guilt-prone person will act to correct their mistake or a perception of wrong, while someone who experiences shame will tend to feel bad about themselves but do nothing to address the mistake or issue. As the Forbes article on this research concluded:

People who feel ashamed tend to retreat from problems, while those who feel guilty, are motivated to find a remedy.

Newspaper headlines and reports about how schools are failing to meet the needs of Maori students,  how we're failing students in the area of ICTs, or how schools aren't adequately catering for disabled students are just a few examples of the sorts of things that can lead to feelings of guilt and shame among educators. 

The fact is each of these perspectives has some validity, and each does need to be addressed – but we can't afford to become so overwhelmed that we choose to do nothing, neither can we afford to pass it off as someone else's problem. If feelings of guilt do indeed, as the Standford research suggests, create leaders who are more likely to act to find a solution, then guilt-prone leaders are the ones we need, and instead of thinking about how we might feel less guilty, we ought to focus on what that emotion causes us to do, how it causes us to behave and how the solutions to these issues may be resolved. 

Leading with guilt seems a good option to me 🙂


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