5 Reasons Leaders Fear Embarrassment

by Jennifer Miller on September 30, 2011

in Leadership

And Three Ways to Deal with It

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

“The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate.”

Douglas Engelbart, American Inventor


I was in a strategic planning meeting being led by a Regional VP named “Henry”. His boss was there, as were all 55 of his team members from across the globe. Henry was in the middle of his presentation when his Skype icon popped up onto the lower right hand corner of his presentation screen, “[pet name]—are you there?”

Someone yelled from the back row of the auditorium, “Hey, Henry, should we call you [pet name] from now on?”

Nobody likes embarrassment. Mortifying moments that happen at work—they’re brutal! This is especially true for people in leadership roles because their actions are under even more scrutiny than the typical worker.

Unfortunately, like Henry’s Skype icon, these things just “pop up”. Their appearance can’t be “managed”. Trying to avoid embarrassment is like the proverbial nailing of Jello to a wall: it’s hard to do and probably not worth the mess. So why do some people still operate under the mistaken premise they should avoid embarrassing situations at all costs? It’s an unrealistic expectation driven by fear:

  1. People will laugh at me.
  2. I’ll look stupid.
  3. My persona of near-perfection will be damaged
  4. I’ll seem weak.
  5. My credibility will suffer.

What if, instead, you took Douglas Engelbart’s quote to heart—that a bit of embarrassment may actually be good for your leadership effectiveness? Being forced to admit a gaffe, mispronunciation (or, heaven forbid bodily noise) will do wonders to help you show humility and most importantly, your humanity.  

Here are three remedies to help you deal with those inevitable embarrassing moments at work:

Acknowledge it. Acting like it didn’t happen may work on some level for you, but it does not work for your followers. They saw you do it (or heard through the grapevine that you did it) so just ‘fess up and get on with it.

Use Humor. As a former corporate trainer, I’ve made my share of “oops!” comments during presentations and workshops. I once co-facilitated a workshop with a brilliant trainer who stumbled on the AV cord and nearly bit the dust in front of 100 meeting attendees. He didn’t miss a beat. He put himself upright and said with a chuckle, “I just washed my feet and I can’t do a thing with them.” Sometimes, just laughing at oneself can be the best way to show that a) you have a sense of humor and b) you are human.

Be gracious. My colleague Henry took the ribbing in stride. He didn’t get defensive or try to outdo the heckler from the audience with a riposte. Instead, he smiled, quickly deleted the Skype icon, let the laughter subside and then moved on with his presentation.

The next time an embarrassing situation comes your way, take a deep breath, deal with it and take heart in knowing this: you just upped your maturity another few notches.


Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

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