John is a project leader. He knows the importance of conveying praise to his team for jobs well done but finds that message of praise hard to deliver. His personal sense of inferiority is so high that he assumes his team will not value his praise—therefore he does not offer it. John’s team, in turn, comes to believe they are not worthy of it. This leads to a common problem. A leader who feels he is unworthy can never bestow worthiness upon those he leads.
Susan is the president of her firm. Despite her position, she feels very insecure in her role. Her credentials do not match others in her station. She believes others may view her as a “poser.” Therefore, she leads with a very tight fist. She will not delegate. Her centralization is very high. She becomes known as a micro-manager because she lacks the confidence to trust and enable others. This leads to organizational dysfunction and exposes another common problem. A leader entrenched in personal insecurity will inevitably restrict their followers.
Prevalent teachings on emotional intelligence will encourage leaders like John and Susan toward the self-awareness to recognize these negative traits and work to correct them. Yet, while self-awareness is an essential start, true diagnosis and correction are much more difficult.
I believe true and lasting change can come only when we leaders do business with our defective sense of self.
DEALING WITH THE DEFECTIVE SENSE OF SELF
There are two underlying culprits for all types of personally disquieted behavior: shame and pride. At first glance shame and pride seem to be strange bedfellows. Shame hides while pride boasts. Shame feels inferior, while pride feels superior. Shame hears voices of disapproval while pride hears voices of applause. Shame defensively hides in the shadows. Pride bombastically parades in the streets. Ironically, shame and pride may start in opposite places, but they lead to the same destination. Neither can see past itself.
Disquieted leadership is no different. Leaders driven by shame and pride exhibit all types of dysfunctional behavior. We find ourselves needing to show others up—even those we should be developing and leading. We feel the need to prove ourselves by adding our two cents to every discussion. Our need for validation drives us to insufferable attention-seeking and excessive attempts to prove our value to the organization. We always have to be smarter. We always have to be right. We won’t step off the treadmill of recognition-seeking, even when it is at the expense of others. We won’t see past ourselves.
Leadership texts tend to address the negative side effects of pride and self-adulation. However, I think few recognize the underlying power of shame. Feelings inherited from the Fall itself tell us that we’re not good enough, that we don’t measure up, and deep-down we are really just failures. This drives us to cover up. Some cover up by hiding in life’s shadows, but they are not usually the people who rise to the top of the leadership ladder.
I submit that we who are naturally drawn to leadership tend to use pride to mask our shame. We cover up our nagging sense of insufficiency by trying to become overly sufficient.
This strange relationship between shame and pride explains so much of what we do. Why do we bristle when our peers get recognized for something we don’t? Why are we annoyed at others’ showing off in areas in which we excel? Why are billionaires agitated over the success of other billionaires? I’ve observed it is because someone else’s pride penetrates our shame.
Someone performing better than us, particularly in areas we excel in, makes us feel worthless, defective, and rejected. In other words, others’ pride begets our shame which begets our pride which begets others’ shame. That’s an often concealed but vicious cycle of both personal and leadership disquiet. We strive and strive and strive some more to overcome the nagging sense of deficiency, but so long as we live in that cycle, more will never be enough.
While self-help bandages may provide some incremental improvement, I believe the only true antidote to break the shame-pride cycle lies in a Christian’s union with Jesus Christ. The term “in Christ” occurs some 164 times in the letters of Paul alone. To be “in Christ” means we are so connected to him that everything he has done, we have done through association. Everything he has accomplished, we have accomplished. Everything he has overcome, we have overcome. Everything he has put to death, we have put to death.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
It matters because, by journeying through the terrible shame and humiliation of the cross, Jesus Christ put shame to death. And if we are in Christ, we no longer need to live in shame’s identity because it isn’t ours anymore. The voices inside need no longer mock us, ridicule us, and insult us. They need no longer scream, “Disapproved.” Even when people tell us those things, we need no longer own them. Those voices have been put to death.
The only voice that ultimately matters anymore is God’s voice—the voice that belongs to us because we are in Christ. And God’s voice to us says, “Stop trying to prove yourself to everyone around you. I know you by name—and I approve of you.”
It matters because when he came to earth as a man to live in our stead, Jesus Christ also put pride to death. If we are in Christ, we no longer need to live in the identity of self-comparison because that identity isn’t ours anymore. The voices inside need no longer seek to congratulate us, inflate us, and exaggerate us. They need no longer scream, “Compare yourself! Be sure you’re better!” When others poke our “shame buttons,” we need no longer be tuned into them and respond in pride.
CHANGE THE VOICE
The only voice that matters anymore is God’s voice. And God’s voice to us says, “I created you as one of a kind. Since the beginning of time there has never been another person like you. You don’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. You are and always will be of inestimable value. You no longer need to congratulate and honor yourself. I know you by name—and I honor you.”
The identity message for the disquieted leader—whether driven by shame or pride—is the same. We need to begin the daily, even hourly, practice of training ourselves to stop listening to our own voice—and start listening to God’s.
In other words, as leaders, we need to first lead ourselves—to change the voice we hear.
Lane Cohee is an Associate Professor of Management at Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Rinker School of Business. He’s also a former business leader in the aerospace and defense sector. His full story offers paths of discovery and deliverance. You can watch or read it online at www.disquietedsoul.com.