CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

6 Ways Great Leaders Manage Guilt

Most every leader has harmed others at some point, mostly unintentionally. Here Inc. columnists help leaders manage through guilt without being callous.
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Much is written about hardhearted corporate executives who gleefully harm and exploit the public while reaping their bags of money. But the truth is that most CEOs and entrepreneurs are not Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Most are well-meaning, big-hearted people that want to share their vision with the world and build honestly acquired wealth for their employees and family.

Still, the time comes for nearly all good leaders, even with the best intentions, when they will fail those around them and perhaps in a big way. Inevitably, they will make bad decisions, hire the wrong people, fail to raise capital, get beat by the competition, or create a legal issue. No doubt, they will miss an important event, hurt someone's feelings, and leave someone important unrecognized. And let's not forget that they will probably neglect their friends and family in the name of sacrifice. And despite what many will think, for all these entrepreneurial sins and others, most great leaders will feel very guilty.

Being Jewish, I am naturally susceptible to guilt with most anything I do that leaves someone else unhappy. Whenever I realize I have harmed someone unintentionally, I feel horrible, and the guilt can consume me, left unresolved. So I have learned to manage it accordingly, with a few steps.

  1. Assess the damage. I want to make sure I give serious thought to how my actions negatively impacted others so I can avoid similar issues in the future.
  2. Apologize to those harmed. I am not always looking for absolution from those affected and may or may not deserve it, but it is important to let them know that their hardship mattered to me even when it was unavoidable.
  3. Rectify the situation if possible. I can't always fix what happened and sometimes shouldn't, but in cases in which I need to make something right, I believe I have a responsibility to do so, so I will take action no matter how long it takes to clean up my mess.

Leaders are human and make mistakes. It helps when others are understanding about the amount of decisions leaders make and the responsibility they carry, but ultimately, they need to resolve their own guilt, for the decision to be a leader was theirs to begin with. I believe the guilt goes along with the glory, so learn from it and be a better leader.

Here are additional insights from my Inc. colleagues.

4. Look at it objectively.

When I was about 5, I stole a toy doghouse from another little girl. I got away with it, and I still feel guilty. That's the nature of guilt: If you're anything like me, you'll judge yourself much more harshly than anyone else would. So use that fact: Try to judge yourself as if you were someone else. If someone else had done what you feel guilty about, would you see it as an honest mistake? Would you believe this other person deserved forgiveness? Have you done what you can do to undo the harmful effects of your error? If the answers to these are all yes, then you have to let yourself off the hook. Minda Zetlin--Start Me Up

Want to read more from Minda?

5. Share the responsibility.

In the process of forgiveness, we talk about accepting responsibility for your part in the problem. In absolving yourself of guilt, it's important to consider the other person's part in the problem as well. When my clients express guilt for letting someone down or having to fire an employee, I ask them to share the responsibility with the other party. An investor chooses to invest and understands the risks. An underperforming employee has made a choice to check out. This isn't about placing blame but accepting that you were doing the best you could with the resources and information you had at the time.  Learn from your mistakes, forgive yourself and others, and allow your leadership skills to blossom! Marla Tabaka--The Successful Soloist

Want to read more from Marla?

6. Move forward.

Guilt is a part of the entrepreneurial journey. At some point, you will say the wrong thing to an employee, spend money on an improvement to your business that doesn't pan out, or miss your daughter's swim meet. I have made every one of these mistakes in my past, and what I have learned is that though I feel guilt over what happened, the bigger problem is these mistakes feed my fear of failure. That somehow a mistake is so big it will impact my ability to ever be successful as a person or as a business.

You must remember that fear is a four-letter word. You can't change the past. You can only apologize and move forward. Rest assured that nothing you have done is unforgivable, and view it as one of those many lessons you learn along the way. Guilt is necessary in any great leader, but you can't let it hold you back. Eric Holtzclaw--Lean Forward

Want to read more from Eric?

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: May 21, 2014

KEVIN DAUM | Columnist

An Inc. 500 entrepreneur with a more than $1 billion sales and marketing track record, Kevin Daum is the best-selling author of Video Marketing for Dummies and the executive producer of Amilya! on 77WABC New York.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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