The Golden Key to Becoming a Powerful Leader

Learning how you handle shame after failures is your golden key to being the best leader you can be. Brené Brown’s work shows you how.

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You’ve read all of the management books. You’ve been to the seminars. You’re equipped with a utility belt loaded with tips and tricks to hurl at any situation, and the Harvard Business Review and all of its back issues have a home on your nightstand.
Yet at the end of the day, you can still be knocked to your feet from missing a project deadline, losing a client opportunity, or even just having a bad interaction with an employee. And the knock quickly grows from small failure into identity-crushing insecurity. Really? You think to yourself. I’m way past this! I’m 5, 15, 35 years into my career. This shouldn’t bother me. I should be better at handling this by now.
Commence whirlwind of shame, gnawing doubt, humiliation. Nastiness that stays with you for weeks and makes you wonder, Maybe I’m not up to this. How am I going to lead this team? How are we going to meet this crazy goal if I can’t even handle this?
Learning how you handle shame after failures is your golden key to being the best leader you can be. Once you discover this about yourself, everything else will fall in place for you. All of those hacks and new management theories will feel like second nature, and you’ll be able to lead your team and company to new heights.
Here are three steps to mastering shame.

How to uncover and master shame

Most leaders have no problem taking risks. Fail often! Dare! There’s no shortage of risk-taking encouragement in modern business lit, and these values form the foundation of modern entrepreneurism. What you won’t find in these books is how to deal with falling. You dared! You won! (Sometimes!) But when you failed, you felt it for weeks. Months. Maybe you still cringe about failures or upsetting interactions now, years on.
Brené Brown, a world-renowned researcher who focuses on how we can identify and overcome emotions like shame and humiliation, gives us a three-step process for digging out of emotional pits like these.

1. Learn how to write a “shitty first draft” of how you’re feeling

After something happens that makes you feel humiliated, write down exactly what happened. Recognize how the incident made you feel. With pencil and paper. On a sticky note. On a napkin. Whatever. Write it down, Brown insists, don’t just think it or say it. You must see the words so that you can pick apart the story.
Brown’s example
You’re preparing a brief for a potential client that could become one of your company’s most lucrative, despite them having a reputation for being awful to work with. You know that the client is a bad fit, but you move forward anyway. For weeks, you have your entire team go full steam ahead to contribute to your pitch and create materials to win their business. When pitch day arrives, their team, as anticipated, is incredibly rude. Nobody listens. And your team is completely spent and demoralized from the effort.
Your feelings? I’m a failure. I’m a screwup. I didn’t do my job. My team will never trust me again. You write everything down and move to step #2.

2. Pick apart your “shitty first draft”

After writing down your story, get honest about what you wrote. Because the brain seeks wholeness, when something happens, the brain will automatically try to fill in the gaps to give the incident a beginning, middle and end, even if the story is wrong. You must challenge this “shitty first draft” (SFD) of what happened to weed out your own assumptions and determine “what’s truth, what’s self-protection, and what needs to change” in how you handle failure.
As a leader, remember that your bad days and insecurities don’t just impact you. In Brown’s words, “the conspiracies and confabulations that we tend to make up in the face of limited data can tear away at the heart of organizations.” Keep yours in check.
The magic of writing down and analyzing the stories that you make up in response to negative events is that you discover the untruths, values and false facts that your brain filled in.

Brown’s example

After writing the SFD about being a failure in step #1, you take a second look at what went wrong. You discover that you’re not a screwup, but instead tried too hard to prove that your team could take on the client, at the expense of asking if you should or want toYou climb out of the hole, addressing your shame (I’m a screwup). You talk honestly with your team and apologize, with one takeaway for the future: you’ll only take clients that will respect your team. You won’t let them—or yourself—feel demoralized by disrespectful, if lucrative, clients in the future—the cost to morale is too high.
Instead of staying under a rock and stewing in negativity, you feel better, your team feels better, and you walk away better equipped for future mishaps.

3. Discover and grow from the gaps

Wrestling with failure instead of shoving it under the rug can help you:

  • Shine a light on how to better handle situations next time around
  • Resolve conflicts by approaching conflicts coolly and objectively
  • Learn about how you communicate (and improve what’s not working)
  • Keep personal professional failures from defining you and continue growing as a leader
  • Help your team feel comfortable taking risks, innovating and winning big

When you get honest about your worst moments, you not only become a better leader, but your business benefits, too.

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