Contrary to popular belief, shame is neither inherently good nor bad. Like a knife, its positive or negative impact is dependent on the purpose for which it is wielded. Amongst humans, shame can be understood as a learned concept that follows self and societal consciousness. It is the reason why a one-year old may walk naked and laugh in a crowd, but runs for cover at five. Indeed, shame can also be seen as the mark of sanity, and the absence thereof, insanity. And similar to how the sharp edge of a knife keeps one aware of its presence in one’s hand, the inherent ridicule nature of shame can be an excellent action checker, especially in leadership. Theories and concepts in human sociology, psychology and philosophy attest to this. However, the focus of leadership in this piece extends beyond the state and federal level, encompassing all units of leadership- from estate and association leaders to those within a family.
Peering into the history of human behaviour, Erving Goffman, in his book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” divided social situations into two distinct regions: the front stage and back stage. The front stage, referring to situations where individuals are in the presence of others and actively perform their roles, displaying behaviours that align with social expectation and norms; while the backstage represents private settings where individuals can relax and drop their public performance. Prior to this, he explained social interaction with the metaphor of a theatre- how individuals engage in impression management, akin to how actors present specific images to the audience on a stage. He also discussed the notion of stigma, defining it as a trait deeply discrediting to an individual and can lead others to perceive them as flawed, tainted or of diminished worth, “blemishes of individual character” being one of the three types of stigmas identified.
B.F Skinner, on the psychological and behavioural plane, proposed with his theory of operant conditioning that behaviour is influenced by its consequences. Put simply, behaviours followed by positive consequences are more likely to be repeated and behaviours accompanied by negative consequences, less likely to recur, resulting in what he called “operant behaviour” (behaviour influenced by its consequences).
Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his piece “Emile, or on Education” addressed the concept of shame as an essential part of human rightful behaviour. According to his view, shame is a crucial emotion that arises from social interactions and plays a significant role in regulating behaviour, thereby serving as a social regulator. Rousseau advocated that shame could be used positively in the education of individuals to develop moral autonomy. And much like B.F Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, he also believed that humans, by understanding the consequences of their actions and feeling shame for harmful behaviours, can learn to act in a way that respects the well-being and rights of others.
Amidst this backdrop of concepts and theories, queries that echo our notion of leadership surface:
What is really meant by the word leadership? Service or Self-elevation? What image of leadership is every leader expected to portray? Is leadership about seeking the common interest of the people or is it about self-aggrandisement? What are the non-negotiable and no-brainer qualities an aspiring leader must possess to bear the weight of leadership? Hold on; does weight exist in our leadership at all or is it just a stroll in the park? Is leadership a pathway to leave a good legacy or is it a get-rich-quick-scheme?
If the answers to these questions affirm character, service, accountability and communal progress, how come a relay race runner feels relieved to hand over the baton at the end of a race, yet threats and bloodshed follow the end of tenures in our leadership? Everyone thinks twice before taking up a challenge; why then is our leadership met with a deer-thirsty leap and opulent celebrations of a lottery win for a journey that has not yet begun? Why do our leaders dance bare in the streets and markets? Why do they wear mismatched shoes and wear their bras on their blouses in public? Why do they walk around with embroidered senatorial attire but leave their waist uncovered? Why do they defecate right in front of the people they represent and gloat instead of cower? Why do they engage in robbery and rape in broad daylight?
Just as it is for an insane person, insanity has taken over because of a missing link- the guiding force of shame. If this force is evident in even a 5-year-old, “how can it be restored in our leaders?” should be the next question to our way forward.