Experiencing public humiliation can feel excruciatingly challenging and confidence-crushing, especially for leaders of organizations who thrive on appearing that they have it all together. But as we see in our personal lives, humiliation can be one of the most potent and transformative pathways to growth, resilience and courage.
Interested in learning more about how we can turn our humiliating experiences into fuel for growth, I was excited to catch up with Bill Treasurer, who is the Chief Encouragement Officer of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company. He is the author of numerous books, including A Leadership Kick in the Ass, Leaders Open Doors, and Courage Goes to Work. For over two decades, Treasurer has worked with thousands of leaders, including those at NASA, Saks Fifth Avenue, UBS Bank, Spanx, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
His new book A Leadership Kick in the Ass helps leaders turn their career blunders and setbacks into transformative change.
Here’s Bill’s take on how humiliation teaches us to grow:
Kathy Caprino: Bill, how does humiliation factor into becoming a great leader?
Bill Treasurer: People like following leaders who are confident, decisive, and have a clear vision of where they’re taking us. That said, we also like following leaders who are attuned to our needs, treat us with respect, and aren’t pretentious. So we want the confidence of our leaders to be grounded with humility. Humility helps temper and rightsize a leader’s ego, so that it doesn’t get pampered or inflated.
Humility is a tricky thing. If you claim to be humble, you probably aren’t. Most often, you get humble only after you’ve been humbled. Humility is the positive outcome of humiliation, and sometimes the best thing that can happen to a leader, particularly a leader with an oversized ego, is to suffer through an embarrassing failure. In the book, I refer to this as “Transformative Humiliation” – the positive behavioral changes that result from experiences that are painful, leveling, and embarrassing.
The foreword of the book was written by Clint Hurdle, the coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who writes “There are two kinds of leaders; those who have been humbled, and those who are about to be.” It’s through the navigation of these seasoning events where leaders can gain wisdom, which ultimately makes leaders stronger, more attuned to the needs of others, and more humble.
The first law of leadership is this: It’s not about YOU. It’s about the people you’re privileged to lead. Sometimes it takes a swift kick in the ass bring a leader’s ego back to that reality.
Caprino: How can leaders develop healthy both self-esteem and self-confidence, but also keep those potentially huge egos (and narcissism) in check.
Treasurer: First of all, leaders need to be keenly aware of how easy it is to get seduced into thinking that you’re special when you’re in a position of leadership. You’ll be surrounded by applauding sycophants, you’ll enjoy perks that non-leaders don’t get, and you’ll be afforded latitude from common conventions that other’s must strictly abide by. Leaders are rarely confronted, after all, when they show up late for meetings, or interrupt people, or skirt policies with which others must comply. So leaders have to vigilantly guard against seeing themselves as “better” than others, because all the cues they get suggest they are.
To keep from getting too caught up in yourself, I suggest having at least one Chief Ego Deflator . Every leader should have at least one person whose job it is to call the leader on his or her bull. The CED acts as a sort of conscience, ensuring that when the leader makes a decision, it’s focused on serving the interests of the organization and its people, not satisfying the leader’s ego needs. Self-deception is dangerous to all people, but most especially leaders. Leaders need to surround themselves with truth-tellers.
Healthy self-esteem is a good thing for a leader to have. It starts with self-respect. The first person a leader has to lead is him or herself. Being “fit to lead” starts with being physically, mentally, and spiritually fit. Being fit, in a holistic way, builds your confidence. The opposite is also true. Being overweight, smoking, and excessive drinking will undermine your confidence. Your self-esteem will also suffer if you’re spiritually ungrounded, and mentally lazy or underchallenged. Unless you’re fully fit to lead, people won’t be fully ready to follow you. So, if you aim to be a good leader, show yourself some self-respect and work on your “fitness” as a leader.
Caprino: How can we bounce back quickly after a big humiliation, and learn the lessons we're meant to
Treasurer: Getting through an embarrassing mistake or failure will take a little longer early on in your career, because it’s such a startling and unexpected experience. Once you become more familiar with the experience – and recognize its transitory and potentially transformative nature – you’ll get through it quicker. That said, bouncing back quick is less important than getting deep, thorough, and enduring lessons.
First, focus on the long game.
A career setback is just a momentary speedbump on your long leadership career. The spike in pain will eventually lead to worthwhile lessons and changes. Focus on where you ultimately want to end up, not the detour your career may have taken. Take comfort in the knowledge that every leader worth his or her salt has experienced a big blunder or setback at some point. So welcome to the club! Now it’s your turn to earn your leadership stripes.
Second, pay close attention.
Be keenly aware of the feelings that come up for you after your psychological butt-kick. Do you feel embarrassed, resentful, ashamed, something else? What are you most afraid of and why? Then ask yourself, “What information is this feeling trying to give me?” and more importantly, “What lessons is this feeling trying to teach me?”
It’ll take a little courage to sit with these feelings, but if you sit with them long enough, they’ll reveal deeper lessons. They’ll also act as a sort of benchmark with which to gauge your progress. The more positive behavioral and leadership changes you begin to make after your mess-up, the less embarrassed, ashamed, resentful, or afraid you’ll feel.
Finally, be your own project.
Lots of people lead projects better then they lead themselves. Think about what it takes to lead a great project. You identify the desired outcomes, you draft a timeline and set critical milestones, you marshal the resources needed to make the project successful, and you identify and track key metrics. Guess what? You can do the very same things to get through your humiliating failure!
Caprino: How can we assess if we're in fact, a weak leader, and are ripe for even more humiliation
Treasurer: In the book I describe the two primary types of dysfunctional leaders: pigheads and weaklings. We’ve already talked about the negative consequences of self-absorption, and that resides in the purview of the pighead. The other dysfunctional leader is more common: weaklings. These are the impish, hesitant, and ineffective leaders that lack chutzpah and backbone. People lose confidence fast under a weakling leader. Nobody likes to be led by a wuss.
Weakling leaders play it so safe that they’re dangerous. For example, I once worked with a C-level executive who wouldn’t confront a competent but obnoxious employee who, besides alienating everyone around her, was gunning for his job. By not confronting the issue, he undermined his own leadership because people saw him as lacking the guts to fire the renegade employee. Conflict avoidance is a hallmark of weakling leaders.
Paraphrasing Jeff Foxworthy, you might be a weakling leader if…
• You feel that people walk all over you.
• You hold back on offering your opinions when more dominant leaders state theirs.
• You constantly defer to your boss when consequential decisions need to be made.
• You haven’t been offered more responsibility in a long time.
• You don’t get results, and can offer a host of reasons why not.
Basically, you’re a weak leader if you don’t speak up, aren’t decisive, lack initiative and accountability, and don’t make things happen.
Here are some ways weakling leaders can build their leadership muscles:
Tally the cost of withheld strength.
Weak leaders can be surprisingly strong, but they withhold applying their strength. Most, for example, have strong and well-thought-out opinions, but withhold sharing them. One good exercise is to identify the ways in which withholding your strength may be harming your career. Also consider how it may be costing the people you’re leading and/or the organization you’re serving. How might not applying your strength be gipping them?
Next, get uncomfortable.
Much of my work is focused on helping leaders become more courageous. You won’t find courage in those places you’re already comfortable. Leaders grow, progress, and evolve in a zone of discomfort. Identify all the ways you might be playing it too safe. Then list the uncomfortable actions that taking will best serve you, your direct reports, and the organization. Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, the CEO of IBM, correctly says, “Growth and comfort never coexist.”
Finally, remember these two important words: personal fidelity.
Identify the stronger leader you’d be proud to be. What kind of leader would you be if you could look in the mirror each morning and not want to turn away? What kind of leader do your people deserve you to be? How is that leader different than the leader you are today? What actions can you take to close the gap between the leader you are, and the leader you and your people deserve? Be faithful to your future leader self.
Caprino: Finally, Bill, what’s the best way to learn and bounce back from our humiliating experiences?
Treasurer: First and foremost, leaders have to be role models. Handling your own setbacks, mess-ups, and failures with sobriety, accountability, and grace will go a long way toward helping others bounce back in the same way. Actually, when you handle failures this way, you don’t actually bounce “back”-- you bounce forward.
Also, when people suffer career setbacks of their own, don’t pile-on when others may take advantage of their vulnerability. Instead, share stories about your own less-than-stellar moments, and let them know that setbacks are a normal, natural, and necessary part of the leadership journey.
Dealing with hardship is what leadership is all about. It’s also how leaders develop wisdom. Help them see their setback through the prism of leadership, so they can come to see how the experience may ultimately make them more grounded, attentive to the needs of others, and more influential. Life gives us the lessons we need, and very often humbling events are just what we need to get humble.
For more information, visit Leadership Kick in the Ass and BillTreasurer.com.
Read the original article on Forbes.