Shame isn’t a topic that we typically think has any correlation to leadership – but from my experience, I can tell you that it does. It is something that has tried to keep me from advancing in my leadership starting from a very young age.
By second grade, I was emerging as a leader in the class, which I assumed was a good thing. I noticed that when we divided into groups, others often followed my lead. If a question stumped my classmates, their eyes, even the teacher’s, often turned to me for the answer. When choosing up teams, academically or for sports, I was often among the first to be chosen. I assumed it wasn’t because they liked me—I was still “that Greek girl”—but because they wanted to win.
Halfway through the year, report card day arrived. I was so excited to open the sealed envelope that I couldn’t bring myself to wait—so as I walked down the road toward home, I tore it open to see what marks my teacher, Mrs. Black, had given me. My heart swelled with a sense of achievement as, scanning the page, I saw one high mark after another.
And then my eyes stopped at the bottom, locked on Mrs. Black’s careful printing: “Christine is an excellent student but has to learn that she can’t always be the leader.” My heart lurched. I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach.
Leading whether through example or bossiness or just being the loudest, was the one place I had found for myself in second-grade society. Maybe I couldn’t get them to like me, but I was actually quite good at getting them to follow me. And wasn’t being a leader supposed to be a good thing? Something to be praised? Yet here I was, being chastised for the very thing I thought I was excelling in! I wanted to lead.
Looking back at the teacher’s words now, I realize that perhaps she saw a need to smooth the rough edges off a girl who was trying too hard, who may have been bossy or pushy or abrasive, and who tended to take over rather than work together with others.
Today, I can give her the benefit of the doubt—maybe she was looking for ways to help me grow in social skills. But those thoughts were beyond the scope of my shamed second-grade heart. All I understood was that my teacher wanted me to stop being a leader, to stop being—or so it appeared to me—the best I could be.
Sadly, the final report card at the end of that year showed the results. Right next to her earlier comment, Mrs. Black had written: “Christine has settled down very well.” Yes, I’d gotten the message. Squelch my gifts of leadership. Stifle my strengths. Become more invisible. Be less than myself. Shame does that. It pushes you down and prevents you from becoming all you could be.
“Christine, stop playing ball with the boys. You should be in the kitchen, learning to cook.”
“Why do you spend so much time on schoolwork? Boys don’t like girls smarter than they are.”
Growing up, the message was loud and clear: A good Greek girl should want to learn to cook and play with dolls because her real purpose, her ultimate future, was to grow up, get married, and have babies. Any passions beyond those, the messages I heard at home clearly implied, were shameful – and unknowingly, this affected not only my leadership, but everything about my life.
I was not encouraged to pursue higher education or my dreams, because once I married, I would have no use for either. I had fought against the underlying message all my life that as a woman—as a good Greek girl—I should limit my horizons and temper my ambitions.
Women from all walks of life have confided in me their own struggles with this kind of shame—from CEOs of large corporations, to sales clerks at the mall, from leaders of effective ministries to volunteers in the church kitchen, from single gals nurturing careers, to stay-at-home moms to working moms juggling long to-do lists. A shocking number of women struggle with the sense that somehow, as women, they are less than – and it’s almost as if they are ashamed of being anything more.
If this resonates with you, and you have found your leadership affected by shame in some way, I want you to know something: God created you on purpose, for a purpose. He did not make a mistake when he made you – male or female. He made us intentionally, not accidentally. We were predestined, predetermined, and preordained to be who we are—divine creations (Genesis 1).
God carefully and by design placed gifts and talents within us, and he has called us to activate and use them to bring him great glory during our time on this earth as we influence and lead others to him (John 15:8). We are a gift—an expression of who he is—and the world needs what he has deposited in us. He does not want us to be restricted by cultural limitations—or any kind of limitations—but rather to unleash us and all of our potential into our Kingdom purpose.
So if shame is in some way affecting your leadership, you have a responsibility to take action – to get in your Word and proclaim truth.
Here is some truth to get you started:
Whoever believes in him will never be put to shame (Romans 10:11)
Fear is banished (1 John 4:18)
Love is stronger than death (Romans 6:9)
Good triumphs over evil (2 Corinthians 2:14)
Our needs can be met in Christ (Philippians 4:19)
Captives can be set free (Luke 4:18)
Hope can be restored (Romans 5:5)
Diseases can be healed (Matthew 8:17)
Peace can prevail (John 14:27)
Joy can reign (John 16:24)
Failures can be redeemed (Romans 8:28)
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Christine Caine is an Australian-born, Greek-blooded activist, author and international speaker. She is cofounder of the anti-human trafficking organization, The A21 Campaign, the founder of Propel Women and the author of the new book Unashamed: Drop the Baggage, Pick Up Your Freedom, Fulfill Your Destiny. For more information visit www.christinecaine.com.