Last month I found myself helplessly swaying to and fro under the spell of the orchestral melodies of Above and Beyond at the Citi Performing Arts Center.
Somewhere between the plucking of the harps and the tremulous echoes of the singer’s voice bellowing Sun & Moon, something deep within my soul cracked open.
At that moment I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of guilt. For no apparent reason at all, I felt as if I had let everyone down, that I hadn’t been serving my company or clients in the best possible way. Oddly enough, as soon as this feeling came, it was followed by a huge desire to serve, innovate and create impact at a deeper level than before. I saw myself in front of people, lots of people, moving them to experience life in a whole new way and connecting them with the same positive energy that was flowing through me.
As the song concluded and an explosion of pink confetti descended from the ceiling, I was convinced that I just had a musically-induced existential crisis.
Then, I realized that that swell of emotion was at the core of why I had devoted my life to building a career on empowering others.
And, if I really think about it, I realize I hear similar thoughts from my clients all the time:
“Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because I know my decision will impact thousands of lives.”
“I feel bad that there aren’t more women on our executive team. I want to make sure every member of our company has opportunities to advance.”
“When I stress about funding, I think about our staff and their families.”
“It’s important that my work continues beyond me.”
Great leaders feel a deep sense of responsibility to their organization and, in an even larger sense, to the world they live in.
They can’t help it; they think about it all the time. It is the invisible driver behind all they do.
This sense of responsibility is why they have an indomitable drive for success. It is what fuels their desire to be profitable: they want to be able to appropriately reward their employees and furthering their impact on the world.
Getting a huge IPO or exit, while it may seem to be a primary goal, is actually a secondary motivator for the change they want to create.
Surprisingly, there is a direct correlation with this innate sense of responsibility and a propensity towards guilt.
Francis Flynn, a professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University, and his colleague Becky Schaumburg conducted a study where they gave participants personality tests that predicted each individual’s proneness to guilt and then created scenarios where all participants had to work together on different tasks.
After the tasks were concluded, participants rated each other for leadership abilities. In all the groups, it was found that the people who were judged by the group to be leaders also scored highest in “guilt proneness.”
Apparently, people who are prone to guilt often also have a strong sense of responsibility to make sure other people are taken care of. This makes others perceive them as leaders.
“Guilt is pro-social,” says Dr. Chak Fu Lam, management professor at Suffolk University and founder of Positive Leader, LLC. Under this point of view, guilt is born out of a sense of responsibility for others and drives us to act. Shame, on the other hand, is self-focused and pushes us to hide.
Responsible leaders do not blame others; they internalize the blame, taking it upon themselves and as a result, feel motivated to find a solution.
They also make more of an effort to include everyone and to strengthen the organization and group as a whole.
Those at work who are often highlighting the accomplishments of others and making sure people are being taken care of may be doing so out of guilt. As managers, this may be a quality to watch for as you look for potential leaders.
The next time you feel guilty about something that isn’t going quite right in your organization or venture, know that you are just exercising your leadership muscle and let it drive you toward constructive and creative action.