Leaders Shamelessly Lost

By Paul Dunion | August 12, 2020


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.

Shamefully Lost

1) With shame intensifying denial, the first four stages of denial

become protracted.

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.

Interrupting Shame

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

personal worth?

These questions represent the kind of inquiry that allow leaders, in

Gonzales’ words, “to treat loss as a transformation and not a location”.

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