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A “Leadership Shadow”? – The Importance of Balancing Your Patterns as a Leader

03 August 2013

Stepping forward to lead is an “act of separation” Stepping forward and taking on a leading role as an entrepreneur or a senior executive in the corporate world, marks you out and separates you from the rest team. This is true in any family, sporting or business endeavour.

Put simply: initiating any act of leadership inevitably creates a ‘rift’ between you as the leader and the “others”. The led. Furthermore, by stepping forward to lead, you also inevitably create a separation within between your own leadership persona and your “shadow”.

How your patterns may show up

As you lead you also inevitably ‘shine your light’ on (promote and support / foster) the patterns of relating and behaving that are associated with how you manage and lead effectively. In doing so you cannot help but split off and obscure other less appealing patterns of your own persona. These other patterns become enshrouded within your leadership shadow. So, for example, as a strong leader you may relegate dictatorial and uncompromising aspects into the shadow; or as an accommodating and amiable entrepreneur, you may cast manipulative and unreliable patterns into the shadow.

Identifying with “Sunny Side” patterns

When considering our leadership styles and patterns, it is very tempting to identify primarily with our more “sunny” sides. Consequently our colleagues (customers or even competitors) are more often than not presented with the more “wholesome” aspects of our behaviour and leadership patterns. We present ourselves as healthy mature individuals stepping up with determination into ever more significant senior leadership positions.

For many of us, this presentation is unproblematic. What we shine our light on remains the focus. What we have cast into our “shadow” may very seldom turn up in ways that affect wider business or lead others to question our effectiveness or credibility as leaders. 

Leadership under pressure

Working as executive coaches, we have found that for many leaders and senior managers, stepping up into a leadership role works very well until for them as leaders until they happen to make a mistake, to be wrong, or to encounter profound criticism of their leadership.

However, for many others, working in the challenging and complex context of the 21st Century world of work, it is likely that eventually they will be confronted with situations in which they can no longer simply identify with their leadership strengths, or continue to deny the challenges they face by suppressing them within their leadership shadows.

As a leader it is therefore worth noting that:

  • When under pressure –  you may go into overdrive and experience that patterns from your shadow play out more prominently in ways that have a real impact on your effectiveness in the business
  • The 21st century work of work, being unrelenting and “always on”, can create environments that stimulate or trigger behaviour more related to being in overdrive rather than in balance
  • Specific contexts, people and relationships can connect to the aspects you are “shining your light on” as well as the aspects you may we have relegated to the “shadows”
  • As a leader you can only consistently and continuously approach being at your best when you are prepared to stay in touch with, and to balance, your “Leadership Shadow”
  • Staying connected with ones “shadow” is not necessarily easy and straight forward, particularly if you are a successful and acclaimed leader
  • Even the most successful and effective of leaders, eventually has to acknowledge and work with the shadow aspects of their relationships (internal and external) if they are to continue to lead others effectively through changing times.

The need to keep in touch and in balance with our shadow

As a leader you may be paradoxically most effective when key people you relate to can be highly critical of your style and you can still manage to acknowledge the shadow aspects of how you are relating with them. Doing this may not be easy. It is very hard to remain in contact with patterns that, of necessity you have quite deliberately split off.

Some leaders may be fortunate enough to have very strong management teams or very strong partners, who can help them stay in touch and balanced by keeping a spotlight firmly pointed at their shadow sides. Most of us are sadly not in this lucky and privileged position. We have to seek out ways of staying connected and balanced ourselves. If we remain dedicated to this quest, we may be rewarded and benefit from the help of a trusted and capable advisor, able to shine a revealing light on our obscured patterns, give good and timely feedback, and offer useful input where appropriate.


This blog article is adapted and edited from the Book by Prof. Erik de Haan and Dr Anthony Kasozi, The Leadership Shadow, published August 3rd 2014 and available from

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