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When guilt in leaders is a good thing

3 min read


When we think of the ideal leader, we tend to think of a standard set of traits: extroverted, decisive, intelligent and even tall. Here’s one more we may have to add to the list: guilt prone.

Stanford professor Francis Flynn and his doctoral student Rebecca Schaumberg say that guilt-prone individuals may make better leaders. In their study, they administered personality tests to groups of four or five people. The tests measured guilt proneness, shame proneness, extraversion and other traits. The groups were then asked to perform two group tasks, such as developing a marketing campaign for launching a product. For each group, the researchers deliberately avoided designating a leader.

After the tasks were complete, participants rated one another on leadership qualities such as taking charge of the task or facilitating the discussion. These qualities would have had to arise naturally given the initial leaderless-ness of the groups. Flynn and Schaumberg found that an individual’s guilt proneness actually predicted emerging leadership more than even extraversion, a well-known predictor of leadership in tasks such as these.

Ironically, the groups did not recognize guilt proneness in each other, nor did they comment that the emerging leaders were particular guilt prone. Instead, their guilt proneness showed in the leaders’ actual behaviors. For example, guilt-prone leaders took the time to make sure everyone was heard during discussions. Still, their result was quite counterintuitive and held interesting implications outside the lab. So, Flynn and Schaumberg went into the field.

In a second study, the duo gathered feedback about incoming MBA students from co-workers, clients and former managers — asking the colleagues to evaluate the students on the established traits of effective leadership. They then administered the same set of personality tests to the MBA students. They found a similar link between guilt proneness as measured by the personality test and the extent to which colleagues considered the person a leader.

Of particular interest was the researchers’ choice to measure both guilt proneness and shame proneness, which they defined as two very different things. Feeling guilty tends to motivate people to make amends, whereas feeling shame tends to motivate people to withdraw and hide from the error. In both studies, shame proneness was found to have no predictive effect on leadership. Guilt-prone people, on the other hand, were perceived as strong leaders because they felt a responsibility to others. That responsibility led them to engage in behaviors that helped them lead their group.

The distinction between guilt and shame might be the most significant lesson in this experiment. No leader is perfect. Mistakes happen. Things just go wrong, whether the direct result of a leader’s action or just on their watch. There are a variety of ways leaders can respond to these mistakes, including hiding them or blaming others. The most constructive response is typically to embrace the guilt, take responsibility and work to fix the problem. This guilt-prone response also happens to be the one we recognize most as a sign of great leadership.

David Burkus is a professor of management at Oral Roberts University and editor of LDRLB, an online think tank that offers insights from research on leadership, innovation and strategy.