Great leaders are usually defined by their triumphs—their visionary strategies and smart decisions. But new research suggests that a person's ability to lead may have a lot to do with how he or she deals with mistakes.


In a recent study, researchers found a link between how guilty people feel when they mess up and how well they perform as leaders. Becky Schaumberg, a doctoral candidate at Stanford's Graduate School of Business and co-author of the study, says this is because strong feelings of guilt are associated with a heightened sense of responsibility. "Guilt-prone individuals are really sensitive to their obligations, so they follow through on those duties," she says. Guilt is different from shame, says Schaumberg. In her view, a guilty person focuses on correcting mistakes. People who are ashamed, on the other hand, just beat themselves up. "When people experience guilt, they want to fix the bad thing that they did," she says. "Shame is very self-focused."


In the first of three experiments, researchers asked participants to rank the leadership abilities of hypothetical people on the basis of written personality assessments and responses to a survey that measured feelings of guilt and shame. One survey question, for example, read, "You are driving down the road and you hit a small animal." This was followed by what researchers considered a guilty response ("You'd feel bad that you hadn't been more alert while driving") or an ashamed response ("You would think, 'I'm a terrible person.' "). Participants said the hypothetical people with the most guilty answers made better leaders.

In the second study, participants completed a survey that measured their ability to feel guilt. Then, they split up into groups of four or five to engage in two exercises. In the first, they developed a marketing campaign for an imaginary product development firm. In the next, they were told to pretend a plane had crashed in the desert, and that their group represented the only survivors. Each group was asked to come up with a survival strategy. At the end of the exercises, the participants evaluated their teammates on the basis of leadership qualities. The people who scored the highest on the guilt test were deemed the most capable leaders by their groups.

In the final study, researchers reviewed leadership evaluations of 139 M.B.A. students and then surveyed the students to see how prone they were to feelings of guilt and shame. The students' propensity to feel guilt was highly correlated with how supervisors and peers had ranked their leadership skills.


When hiring managers, ask candidates about how they dealt with and what they learned from mistakes. "The way people express themselves when they mess up is an important cue about how they're going to be in a managerial position," says Schaumberg. Business owners can nurture guilt by creating cultures in which people feel comfortable taking responsibility for their mistakes. Provide opportunities during company meetings for employees to acknowledge, say, a bungled sales presentation and to lay out steps to correct the problem.