The Shadow Side of Leadership

When thinking of gaining more self-mastery and personal power, it’s important to know that you will encounter challenges. Sometimes these are external circumstances that demand that you stretch in a new manner. Other times the challenges are internal because belief and value systems you hold are at odds with the current reality.

Whether your challenges are internal or external, how you address them will set you on a specific course of behaviors, actions and consequences.  If you encounter these challenges without a level of personal awareness or insight, the consequences can be destructive. This destruction can range from mild neglect of business matters to harming the company as a whole.

For our purposes here, ‘shadow’ refers to the less conscious, unintended and sometimes negative side of a behavior or pattern. It’s an aspect of ourselves that we don’t fully own up to because it either causes us some shame, fear or worry. We’ve forgotten how to play with our shadows. Shadows sides hold amazing mirrors for us and offer the potential for growth, integration and maturation. They are indicators of areas where we have strengths and assets that are unknown to us, misused or distorted. They point out the aspects for improvement and if not too out of balance, they can add character, making us interesting people. Most importantly, the shadow is a door way to our greatest gifts.

Taking on the role of leader within an organization or community will automatically test how well balanced you are in each of the Archetypal Blueprint™ types. If you are out of balance a shadow side appears. Why? Because you are evolving something, you have people around you, you’re dealing with dynamic systems and you’re trying to create movement results. Any one of those factors, let alone the combination, may highlight your shadow.

After 25 years of working with thousands of leaders there is one thing I can tell you for certain. No one is perfect. Sometimes the shadow or imperfection of the leader adds a certain flair or flavor to his or her reputation. Sometimes the shadow side is checked and balanced by the leader’s team and colleagues. Yet on occasion, this shadow side can be experienced as harmful, toxic or negligent.

Learning from the Shadow

When looking at leadership shadows, your goal is to build awareness, discover your choices, and learn to play with them, so that you can enhance your leadership effectiveness. Here are some tips:

#1: Be curious.

You will learn and benefit more from being an observer than by making a judgment call about another. Evaluate, by all means; notice how a dynamic got into play, the flawed underpinnings in thinking, the misplaced motivation, and the costly consequences. But avoid throwing stones. Keep focused on the main objective of looking at the shadow: gathering information so you can learn and have different options and practices.

#2: Notice your emotional reactions.

When you have a strong response to something, pay attention. That response is great data. It means that something important to you is being flagged. It could be a value, a boundary, a belief or a memory being triggered. Again, treat the reaction with curiosity “interesting, I’m finding myself offended that Ms. X would take such things for granted.” Don’t get too wrapped up in judgment but instead note the thought you are having at that moment and pay attention to your feelings. Both thought and feeling are essential data for you. Try something like:  “That son-of-a-gun, how could he live with himself after doing that, it’s WRONG. Now, why do I feel so strongly about that?” The stronger the feeling, the more information there is for you about how your thinking and your thinking puts everything into motion. Better to know what’s driving you than not.  Remember, this journey is all about self-mastery and awareness of your reactions is a critical step.

#3: Think like a coach.

As a coach I offer clients the opportunity to reflect on their patterns and choices, to understand themselves better and to highlight the real and full results they are producing. You need a certain mindset to facilitate such awareness and choice. As you read the following stories or reflect on your own encounters with bosses and leaders, try this:

  • Discern the data and pattern at play from the drama of the storyline
  • Recognize the bigger implications of the choices made: business consequences, personal well-being, relationships, true contributions and impact, legacy, etc
  • Seek to learn verses judge
  • Hold yourself and others with compassion.

An underlying assumption I have is that everyone is actually trying their best, they are trying to preserve themselves in some manner, and they too are just trying to make sense of things, be happy or feel a sense of connection or well-being. Frankly, sometimes I think “there but for the grace of God go I”, for I could have been the one to be in those circumstances, make the same bad choice or mistake or have lacked awareness. The same may be true for you as well.  Leaders are just human after all. 

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