Leaders Shamelessly Lost
Leaders are especially vulnerable to the cultural mandate that
they are not supposed to be lost. Laurence Gonzales’ seminal work,
Deep Survival, suggests that when leaders are lost, denial of being lost
is inevitable. “Being lost then, is not a location; it is a transformation. It
is a failure of mind. It can happen in the woods or it can happen in life.
People know that instinctively. A man leaves a perfectly good family for
a woman half his age and makes a mess of it, and people say, he got off
the path; he lost his way. If he doesn’t get back on, he’ll lose the self
too. A corporation can do the same thing.” (Gonzales)
Gonzales goes on to describe five stages of getting lost, with
denial being a major driving force in the first four stages.
Stage One – Denial of feeling disoriented, pressing on with urgency.
Stage Two – Realization of being lost amplifies denial, which “blossoms
into a full-scale survival emergency”. Clear thinking is sacrificed
accompanied by action that is “frantic, unproductive and even
Stage Three – Driven by adrenalin, an alleged appropriate strategy is
generated, continuing to deny being lost.
Stage Four – There is a significant loss of both cognitive and emotional
intelligence as the strategy fails, with continued denial of being quite
Stage Five – Denial is lifted and replaced by resignation that being truly
lost is the reality.
Obviously, many unfortunate decisions can take place as a leader
meanders through stages one to four. In more cases than not, denial of
being lost will likely be driven by feelings of shame. That is, there is a
need to deny being lost in order to mitigate feeling shame. Let’s look
more closely at what happens when shame is holding denial of being
lost in place.
1) With shame intensifying denial, the first four stages of denial
2) Prolonged denial produces an unproductive urgency, which
interrupt leaders’ capacity to be present to themselves and
present to others.
3) With a lack of presence in place, clear thinking, including a
capacity to process emotion, is seriously compromised.
4) Compensation for diminished mindfulness in the name of
contrived certainty takes place.
5) As contrived certainty reigns, it becomes increasingly difficult
for leaders to get honest about the organization’s present
status of being lost.
6) Trapped in a web of rationalizations and distortions, leaders
begin to feel the security of their psychological scaffolding
begin to wobble. A sense of confidence and security cannot be
sustained when leaders live a long distance from the truth.
7) Shame begets shame. Unconscious shame tends to get
projected to others. A climate of distrust ensues when a leader
is shaming colleagues and staff.
Numerous benefits are yielded when a leader takes on the
psychological task of de-shaming.
1) Interrupting shame takes courage, a courage that will have far
reaching benefits as leaders face future challenges.
2) The tendency is to diminish the need for denial.
3) Contrived certainly is suspended resulting in an increased capacity
for holding ambiguity, which augments a spacious ability to be
innovative and imaginative.
4) There is an increased ability to hold being lost as not simply
unfortunate, but rather a move away from the familiar, reflecting
5) Leaders increasingly let go of feeling a deep sense of inadequacy
when being lost. Instead, they carry a positive and vital sense of
themselves. They are clearer about what they can offer during a
time of being lost as well as what they can give during the ensuing
time of transition.
6) What leaders say becomes more believable yielding a climate of
7) Displaced shame as a tool for motivations can be significantly
Gonzales cites research suggesting that children six-years-old and
younger have the highest survival rates when getting lost. He explains
this curious fact upon their innocence and ability to remain focused
upon what is at hand rather than getting lost in a maze of strategies.
They simply deal with where they are, what they need now, with an
unbridled openness. I would add that they likely don’t have high
expectations regarding knowing their way, hence insignificant shame
and denial when they lose their way.
Another way of viewing the acumen of very young children can be
taken from the Zen Mater Shunryu Suzuki notion of the beginner’s
mind. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities.” “In the
expert’s mind there are few.”
Fear inevitably accompanies feeling shame when leaders are lost.
Certainly, there is fear about making mistakes and offering erroneous
guidance. However, much of the fear is really about how leaders might
treat themselves while being lost. When shame is interrupted, so is the
fear of unleashing a self-deprecating assault.
As shame subsides, there is opportunity to unpack one of the
cultural formulas for success: If I say a lot, do a lot, acquire a lot, then I
am a lot. During a period of being lost there is an excellent opportunity
to reexamine this alleged blueprint for success. Such a re-evaluation
might include the following curiosities: Am I listening enough? How
comfortable am I as a listener? How effective am I at discerning when I
should be following vs. leading? Can I hold passivity as an important
posture for being informed? Do I know how to ask for help? Am I
effective at identifying who actually is a viable resource when I need
help? How discerning am I in regard to identifying my limits? What does
it mean to decide I am a lot? Is there some other way to support my
These questions represent the kind of inquiry that allow leaders, in
Gonzales’ words, “to treat loss as a transformation and not a location”.