When we hear the word “guilt,” we often think of it in religious or moral terms, so it’s not the most obvious topic for a leadership post. But I bring it up because of how often my clients – strong, capable leaders – cite guilt as the reason they avoid taking a stand. I’m coming to believe that guilt is a silent but formidable saboteur of leadership courage and integrity, especially among leaders who orient from the ‘grace’ side of the power spectrum.

Here’s an example. Kathy is a senior executive who oversees worldwide strategy for a global company. She’s a badass. In her career, she’s had some amazing mentors, whom she largely credits with her success. One of Kathy’s mentors recently asked her to do something that she (Kathy) didn’t feel comfortable with. But she struggled to say no. When I asked Kathy what made it hard to deny her mentor’s request, she said, “She’s done so much for me. I’d feel guilty.” I asked, “So you would rather sacrifice your own sense of right and wrong than default on an imagined debt that your mentor may or may not be holding?” She said, “Pretty much.” Then I asked, “When/how would you know that this debt had been repaid and you were free to act in your own interests?” Her answer: “Never.” And there she was: checkmated by guilt.

Let’s unpack this. One definition of guilt is “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.” In other words, in order to feel guilty, you have to believe at some level that you’ve committed a transgression. What I find is that, especially for gracesters, the so-called transgression is the mere prospect of advocating for oneself or making someone else uncomfortable.

Take that in. How are either of these things an offense? How have gracesters taken on the role of human shock absorbers for others’ discomfort? And at what cost?

In 20+ years of coaching women executives, I’ve seen guilt pull the plug on far too many women’s efficacy, impact and even integrity. Don’t get me wrong: I fervently want leaders to experience guilt when they commit real transgressions. But integrity is not a transgression. Guilt does not belong there.

Integrity is not a transgression. Guilt does not belong there.

If you feel guilty because you’ve actually messed up, then guilt is doing its intended job. It’s asking you to own your mess and clean it up. But if guilt is sabotaging your courage by masquerading as virtue, take it to task. The world needs your boldness.

What about you?  

  • To what degree, and in what ways, does guilt hinder your courage or agency?
  • How do you distinguish between appropriate and sabotaging guilt?
  • What do you tend to feel ‘guilty’ about that you know, objectively, is not an ‘offense or crime?’
  • Take one of those sabotaging guilts from the previous question. What legitimate action is guilt preventing you from taking?
  • How might you move toward taking that action?  What would you have to step into or let go of to do that?