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People who feel guilty over mistakes make better leaders April 18, 2012

Posted by jeremyliew in leadership, management.

Just read an interesting article about some research coming out of the Stanford Business School that suggests that feelings of guilt may signal leadership potential. Some excerpts below, but I’d urge you to click through and read the whole thing – it is pretty short.

When we think of a typical leader, most of us picture a person who’s sociable and upbeat. But new research puts a wrinkle in that stereotype, revealing an unexpected sign of leadership potential: the tendency to feel guilty. “Guilt-prone people tend to carry a strong sense of responsibility to others, and that responsibility makes other people see them as leaders,” says Becky Schaumberg, a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior who conducted the research with Francis Flynn, the Paul E. Holden Professor of Organizational Behavior…

Schaumberg first began investigating a possible link between guilt and leadership when she noticed that driven, hard-working people often mentioned guilt as a motivator. “You don’t usually think of guilt and leadership together, but we started thinking that people would want individuals who feel responsible to be their leaders.”…

There are many ways of responding to mistakes or other problems, Schaumberg says, including blaming others and blaming yourself. But the most constructive response, and the one people seem to recognize as a sign of leadership, is to feel guilty enough to want to fix the problem. “When thinking about what traits are important for leaders to possess, there tends to be a focus on what people do well. But we know that people make mistakes and mess up, and it’s important to look at how people respond to those mistakes because that’s a clue to who they are.”

If you read the whole article, you’ll see how it talks about the specific experiments and research that she did to come up with this finding, and also about how guilt (as distinct from shame) is a better predictor of leadership than how extroverted you are.

This reminded me of Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset:

Dweck explains why it’s not just our abilities and talent that bring us success–but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset. She makes clear why praising intelligence and ability doesn’t foster self-esteem and lead to accomplishment, but may actually jeopardize success. With the right mindset, we can motivate our kids and help them to raise their grades, as well as reach our own goals–personal and professional. Dweck reveals what all great parents, teachers, CEOs, and athletes already know: how a simple idea about the brain can create a love of learning and a resilience that is the basis of great accomplishment in every area.

The takeaway is similar. Dweck says that people who have a growth mindset regards abilities and actions as changeable, and think that through more work they can improve. So they embrace learning through failure, and when something goes wrong, they keep working to make it right, to learn.  People with a fixed mindset regard ability as innate, and so avoid situations that could lead to failure.

Schaumberg comes to a similar conclusion from a different direction. She says that people who feel “guilty” feel guilt about an event or action, and work to make it right, whereas people who feel “shame” feel it about themselves, and remove themselves from the opportunity.

Whichever way you come at it, others recognize when someone works to make things better, and they look to those people for leadership.


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