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Courageous Leadership

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of staff from the Vail School District. Below are excerpts from our conversation about courageous leadership...in the classroom and at home. I hope it challenges you to explore what it means to be a courageous leader and how you can take some tangible steps to move toward increasing your influence and engagement today!


What comes to mind when you think of courageous leadership?

I believe that courageous leadership = influence and engagement….we understand our role as influential leaders, but what is engagement? Engagement is being all in!


We all aspire to be courageous leaders but aren't able to fully live into that calling and purpose. Most of the time, it's not about education, knowledge, or even skills...instead something is getting in the way - inhibiting our ability to be the courageous, influential, and engaged leaders that we could be, but what is it?


I believe it’s shame I realize that the word shame alone brings up a lot of emotions, I can literally feel it in my gut.


I'm trained in the Daring Way, based on the work of Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston - research that has extensively explored shame over the last couple of decades.


Here is what Brene Brown says about shame, “Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”


As difficult as this conversation is, it’s necessary and important.


We all understand, anecdotally, how shame is defined, but here’s the textbook shame definition, found in the book Daring Greatly: 'Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.' Belonging is a primal need and shame gets in the way of our need and our ability to belong, it gets at our greatest fear of being unlovable.


If we operate from the belief that we are unlovable it is impossible to be the courageous leaders we could be, equally it becomes difficult for us to educate and raise children who understand their own inherent value and worth.


The question I often get is what is the difference between guilt and shame? Many use these terms interchangeably. Here’s the subtle but significant difference; guilt is I did something bad, shame is I am bad.


Last year, in the spring semester of her 7th grade year, my daughter got an F in Math. I was angry and disappointed. It felt like a lack of effort and a lack of motivation because she had several missing assignments that contributed to her failing grade. I had a choice at that moment as a parent; come down hard on my daughter - let her know that an F is unacceptable and that she was a disappointment and a failure or I could choose to affirm her inherent value and worth - separate from her grades and encourage and inspire her to work harder and care more, but that regardless of the outcome, her worth isn't effected.

Guilt has the potential to move us forward, learning from our mistakes, but shame inversely leads to addiction, depression, violence, and anxiety. Shame is fueled by gremlins that say, you’re not good enough and who do you think you are. Shame is a normal human emotion, but unchecked can be incredibly dangerous to our sense of self. It’s a painfully visceral experience.


When I was a young girl I had eczema all across my body and specifically all over my arms and legs. I remember in the first grade I had a teacher who I felt shamed me, asking me critically, what was wrong with my arms. I'll never forget that moment - more than what she said I remember what I felt - it was the first experience I remember feeling shame, my own brokenness exposed. Though I expect her intent was not malicious, childhood experiences of shame change who we are, how we think about ourselves, and our sense of self-worth.


Why do so many of us resort to shame then when it doesn’t really work?


Typically, we learn shame in our family of origin and many people grow up believing that it’s an effective and efficient way to manage people, run a classroom, or parent. In the short-term we can see small improvements in motivation, but in the long term it crushes our engagement, innovation, creativity, productivity and trust. All things that are incredibly important in our classrooms and in our homes.


Here’s the good news though….shame happens in our formidable years, but just as often, so do our stories of worthiness - of being enough! Just as I shared a story of my first grade teacher, I have dozens of stories of teachers who invested in me, who saw something in me I didn’t see in myself, teachers who believed in me, and in my self worth. As a result, I began to see it myself.


I think it's helpful to understand the difference between self-esteem and self-worth. Self-esteem comes from achievement and performance and is all about comparison and perfectionism. So as a result, self-esteem becomes incredibly dangerous, as our sense of self-worth is tied to outcomes.


So we get it...shame is bad, now what do we do about it?


Shame resilience is the key. Shame resistance is not possible, because shame is a normal human emotion. No matter what we won’t be able to completely eradicate it from our schools and from our homes, so developing resilience is the key. We have a lot of influence over how much power those experiences of shame have in our children’s lives. The impact of shame is mitigated through cultivating resilience. But to create a culture of resilience we have to do our own work around what's getting in the way...it's incredibly important as parents and educators that we do our own work around shame so that we can help the next generation develop this invaluable skill.


“If we don’t come to terms with our own shame, our struggles, we start believing that there’s something wrong with us - that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough - and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs. If we want to be fully engaged, to be connected we have to develop resilience to shame.” -Brene Brown


So how do we create a culture of shame resilience?


1. Learn to recognize shame and understand its triggers


Assess your schools for shame - in organizations and schools this often looks like blame. Blame is just the discharging of pain. Shame is like termites, it is often hidden and you have to know what you’re looking for. We can’t control the behavior of individuals however we can cultivate organizational cultures where behaviors are not tolerated and people are held accountable for protecting what matters most; human beings. This requires vulnerability and honest conversations.


2. Language is Important


Language is important...separate performance from self-worth. Our children’s worthiness must never be on the line. Self-worth means that I see my value and worth separate from what I can do and what I can achieve. This is an important but subtle difference. We do this by using (and teaching) guilt based language instead of shame based language...you made a mistake but you are not a mistake.


3. Normalize Shame


One of the most powerful phrases we can say is, 'me too'. Help your students and children know they are not alone. Shared humanity is healing. The less we talk about shame the more we are suffering in it.


4. Focus on the Relationship


The primal human need is for belonging and focusing on relationships ensures achievement. This requires engagement. The relationship is never at risk. The respect and dignity of individuals are held as highest values.



Courageous leadership is about engagement, but shame fuels disengagement. When we’re disengaged we don’t show up, we don’t contribute, and we stop caring.


I shared about my daughter's struggles last year in math. A year later and she is excelling in Math. The single biggest reason? Her teacher cares about her. He's invested in far more than how she performs. He knows her, he understands what motivates her, he regularly expresses that he believes in her, and that she belongs. This investment has paid dividends in her work ethic, and as a result, her performance.


I want to end with a quote by a veteran teacher, “For me, teaching is about love. It is not about transferring information, but rather creating an atmosphere of mystery and imagination and discovery. When I begin to lose myself because of some unresolved pain or fears or the overpowering feelings of shame, than I no longer teach...I deliver information and I become irrelevant.”


True courage demands an awareness of our own worthiness. The reason this is often so difficult is because most of us are wading through our own self-doubt, but if we want our children to love and accept who they are, our job becomes to love and accept who we are.


“Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about educating or parenting.” -Brene Brown


Be the change!





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