I think all good leaders deal with guilt on occasion in their leadership and life walk. It shows that they have at least a decent moral compass, and while carrying guilt certainly is not fun and can impede your long-term effectiveness if it lingers, working through guilt can be a positive leadership exercise.
Guilt from all directions
Guilt can come from all directions in your life. Friends, family, co-workers and even you yourself can be an area that you feel guilt around. Guilt, at its core, is a feeling of sadness or unhappiness. You feel sad about how you treated or interacted with someone. Maybe you are unhappy with yourself for not connecting with someone close to you for a long time. Some common areas for guilt to manifest are around
- Prioritizing between work/academic life and your personal life
- Saying something or acting in a way that is hurtful to others
- A feeling of letting someone down
- Acting in a way that is contrary to your moral compass
- Failing to meet your own high standards
Moving past the guilt
Think about the times that you felt guilty and later resolved the situation. It’s likely that you felt a proverbial burden lift from your shoulders. The result is that you positively impacted your own well-being and likely had at least a slightly positive impact on someone else’s well-being too. Here are some steps to take to help you begin to move past your guilt.
1. Think about the origin of the guilt that you are feeling. Where is it coming from? Could it be from making a choice in competing priorities or somewhere else? Is the guilt based on reality or a story that you are telling yourself?
2. Hindsight can impact how you feel guilt based on information that you learned after the situation. Acknowledge that at the time, you made what you thought was the best decision or option.
3. Take ownership of how the decision or situation impacted others. Determine what you have ownership and control over to take action.
4. Connect with team members, family, or friends and sincerely apologize. This is a critical conversation as approaching the other party with authenticity and empathy can go a long way in the right direction while coming in confrontation or defensive will only set you back further.
5. Sometimes the other person will refuse to forgive you. This gives them quite a bit of power in the dynamic of the relationship….if you let it. Be ok with their position. You can only control how you act and react and have no control over the other person’s stance.
6. No matter how it turns out, be proud that you took steps in seeking reconciliation and that you learned from the situation.
Avoiding guilt should not be the goal
When I started to get back on track with my personal health, I began taking mindful cooldown exercises after a workout. At the end of one of those sessions, the instructor had us sit down and quiet our thoughts. He then had us think about the things that were occupying too much time in our minds that day. Once we did, we then mentally acknowledged it and then let the thought go.
It really stuck with me, as I thought about those situations that were taking up too much real estate in my head at the time. I pictured it almost like a train station. The thought comes pulling into the station, you wave at it, and then off it goes. It was a powerful exercise for me to gain awareness of just how much certain interactions and thoughts were holding me back.
The point is not to bother trying to avoid guilt. It’s inevitable. Instead recognize it in yourself, acknowledge it and move on. Guilt can actually be a good place to visit as you grow as a leader and person. It allows you to keep yourself accountable and learn from mistakes and circumstances. Living in guilt, on the other hand, is not healthy and can end up destroying your effectiveness as a leader and significantly impact your quality of life.
Most leaders are harder on themselves than others. Think through the topic or situation that involves the guilt that you carry. If someone else was in the same circumstance would you judge them the same way? Remember that it’s ok to feel guilt and learn from it but in order to be your most effective you have to learn from it, put the work in to resolve it to the best of your ability, and then let go of the rest.
Make a better tomorrow.