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The Leadership Shadow - What it is and Why it Matters?

01 October 2015

The process of taking up a leadership role inevitably involves a ‘rift’ between leader and team, between the leader’s way and other people’s ways of going forward, and between the leader’s own leadership persona and his or her shadow.

As leaders ‘shine their light’ on the effectiveness of the organisation, they cannot help but split off and obscure other less appealing areas which become encapsulated within their own leadership shadows.

The rifts and shadows that always accompany leadership remind us of the essentially ‘relational’ nature of leadership. By defining leadership as relational we confirm a link between areas of light and darkness, between leader and team, and between the leader and the leadership shadow.

This essential realisation means that leaders can only be consistently and continuously at their best when they are prepared to stay in touch with, and to balance, their “Leadership Shadow”.  Such an endeavour is not necessarily easy and straight forward, particularly for successful and acclaimed leaders. Yet inevitably, given the challenges and vicissitudes of the 21st  Century world of work, 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 surmount new challenges and continue to lead others effectively through changing times.

Leadership is a relationship that starts with a separation

Leadership is relational, it takes place between people. When one is given a leadership position, or when an act of initiative is followed and a “leadership intervention” is accepted, you are put in a position of honour and distinction. Through acceptance by others, you are elevated to a position of responsibility that puts you in a crucial role of importance vis-à-vis those that follow you (the team or the organisation). Leadership authority cannot be obtained without consent unless it is by diktat or established, accepted custom and tradition. Leadership involves an act of being set apart that necessarily and naturally creates a rift between the leader and the led. This is the essence of what we call the leadership shadow: leadership by nature creates a split between the meaning maker and the recipients of meaning, the ‘ruler’ and the ‘common’ people. Such a rift, distance or setting apart serves to make meaning and to make the consideration of meaning easier. The split symbolises and in so doing maintains a relationship in which learning and development can take place. It allows new possibilities to be born and action to be prepared. Any bid for leadership creates a tension in relationship which is best expressed by the image of light and darkness, figure and ground, foreground and shadow.

“The Leadership Shadow” is Essential

The idea of the leadership shadow is a universal metaphor the dates back to ancient times. It can be traced to myths and fairy tales and folklore from ancient Egypt and Greece. In more recent times it has been extensively examined by psychologists. Piaget for example, has shown that the ability to recognise one’s own physical shadow is a difficult process that only begins to be mastered at the age of eight or nine. Indeed in psychological terms the correct perception of our own shadow sides takes a lot of time to evolve. In the arts, literature, storytelling, and opera the idea of the shadow is extensively worked with.

The well-known story of the Faustian pact involves the selling of one’s shadow as the prelude to selling your soul to the devil. In Chamisso’s “Peter Schlemil’s Miraculous Story”, Peter sells his shadow to an admirer who praises its beauty. The sack of gold he receives turns out to be bottomless but also of little value to him in overcoming the deep shame he feels at having no shadow. Finally at the very moment when he reneges on the sack of gold, he finds peace of mind and is able to turn his mind to productive work (botany) as well as to begin his personal journey towards forgiveness. At the end of the story he concludes that, if one is to live with others, one must learn to honour first one’s shadow and then one’s gold: i.e. appreciate one’s dark side first and then one’s bright side.

Strauss’s opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten (the woman without a shadow) is also about the quest for a shadow. The protagonist has become the Empress of the Eastern Island despite being a spirit creature, daughter of the Lord of the Spirits, which is why she does not have a shadow. In order to bear children or even to remain in human form, she needs to find a shadow within three days.

In the fairy tale “The Shadow” by Hans Christian Andersen, the writer’s shadow first breaks free and then gradually takes over his own life and begins to command him in a most “pinteresque” way to the point where finally the owner can only become the shadow’s shadow – or be executed.

All these stories emphasise the perils of life without a shadow. They indicate that far from being tolerable, a life without a shadow is also to live without access to your shadow’s resourcefulness, insight and inspiration. It is a recognition, in writing ancient and modern, of the necessary splitting that is a pertinent feature of leadership. As an active leader you often have to push the “follower” within yourself firmly to the background and to push to the foreground a strong-willed, single-minded and bold decision maker. More broadly therefore as a leader the “shadow side” of yourself is triggered the moment you conceive of yourself as a leader. A hidden shadow is engaged in the background and can over time become less accessible or amenable to your control. This may have supreme implications for your effectiveness as a leader.

Consider the following case illustration:

The bright and shadow sides of Quentin

Quentin is creator, founder and CEO of a medium-sized company (QuenCo) that has pioneered a new retail channel supported by the internet, at high margins. After six years of doubling in size and revenue every year, new entrants backed by large multinationals start to flood the market and are soon able to sell at lower prices than QuenCo. As a consequence QuenCo’s sales growth declines rapidly and the board concludes that the company can only respond by reducing costs and offering discounts. This fails however to produce any uplift and clients are only made more aware how expensive QuenCo’s services have been. Even loyal clients that have been with the company from its inception are now lost to the competition. Also, QuenCo prided itself on the breadth of its offerings; now there is a new focus on high-margin lines which means that customers familiar with a greater diversity of products are becoming disappointed.

Quentin believes that the way out of this negative spiral is by innovating. So he becomes less available as he travels, designs and works from home trying to come up with new and radical solutions, just as he did so successfully when he founded the firm. When back for meetings he becomes openly hostile with anyone who challenges or disagrees with his approach. He presses on with more cost cutting and publicly blames the competition: their foolhardiness in slashing prices is the only problem that he wishes to see. Over time some of the senior directors in the head office start to mock his leadership style of now-you-see-him-now-you don’t.

And it is not just hard to predict when Quentin will next be in the office; the way he behaves is even less predictable. For a customer-facing organisation such as QuenCo that relies so heavily on its employees, its customers and their goodwill, it appears to have lost something of its soul. Hard times are approaching, making Quentin even less predictable and more explosive.

We would argue that stepping forward to make a leadership gesture always creates a rift within oneself: a rift between one’s sunny, active, constructive or aggressive side that has the ambition to contribute, create and prove something: and once doubting, pessimistic, needy, vulnerable, careful and concerned side, which craves for connection with oneself and others. The shadow side is therefore part and parcel of leadership.

The essential rift and the play of light and dark accompanying this process may be very subtle. For example you may bring a very caring side of yourself to your leadership role, bringing out your particular warmth, attention and also concerns and readiness to express the need for care. What we are arguing here is that even in such cases there is bound to be a whole side of our personalities which we push down in order to make our bid for leadership. So a very caring, concerned and warm leader may have a side of him- or herself that is to do with conflict, resentment and self-importance that is being suppressed and kept down. We argue that such a mechanism is consistently present to some degree. In order to make a step forward to drive ahead, other aspects have to be left behind, to be pushed back or discarded somewhere in the dark of our experiences. They have to stay lurking, actively within the Leadership Shadow.

The inevitable tussle between our public “sunny” side and our less public “shadow”

It is very tempting to identify primarily with one’s more “sunny” side. This is particularly so when one presents oneself in public. So in most cases we tend to ignore the shadow side of our leadership and our colleagues are most often presented, at least publicly, with the more “wholesome” aspects of our behaviour and leadership patterns. So what the world sees is us growing in our leadership presence and maturity. We present ourselves as healthy mature individuals stepping up with determination into ever more significant senior leadership positions.

Such a stepping up and stepping into roles works very well until as a leader we happen to make a mistake, to be wrong, and to encounter profound criticism of our leadership. For some people that moment may never come. For most of us, working in the challenging and complex context of the 21st Century world of work, it is likely that sooner or later we will be confronted with situations in which we can no longer simply identify with our leadership strengths, or deny the challenges by suppressing them within our leadership shadow.

Faced with new challenges and the need to learn or change something we are compelled to acknowledge our discarded shadow. At this point we have to step aside from the dominating strength, choose followership, and allow somebody else who knows better to show the way. It requires us to use some underdeveloped talents and behaviours that we may have ignored for some time. At this point we face a conflict between our pride and our passion, between our best intentions and our innermost shame, and between our “up” and our “down” (the side of us that is up wants to stay up, win more leadership presence and influence, while the side that is down is by now used to not getting much of a hearing.)

Put differently – we experience that the side of us that is up, prefers to forget about the side that is down, pretending that it does not exist. That is why there is so much omnipotence in leaders. We as leaders may mask our profound feelings of impotence. We may fail to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that impotence comes along with the omnipotence of our strengths. Only in our innermost private feelings and nightmares do we notice traces of our very real feelings of impotence.

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

We acknowledge that it is very hard to remain in contact with something that is of necessity and deliberately split off. Nevertheless, leadership, being a meaning making process achieved through interaction, requires that we as leaders stay connected and retain relational fluidity. We argue that it is necessary for all balanced leaders to keep in contact to the greatest degree possible with their shadow sides. Some leaders may be fortunate enough to have very strong management teams or very strong partners, who can help them 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 do some of this work of staying connected and balanced ourselves. If we are dedicated to it we may seek the help of a trusted and capable advisor.

As coaches we would encourage you as a leader to keep an open mind regarding your ability and need to stay connected with the different aspects of your shadow side and also with others that bring out and challenge shadow aspects of your style. As a leader you are paradoxically at your best when key people you relate to are highly critical of your style and you still manage to acknowledge the shadow aspects of how you are relating with them.  By managing to maintain a critical awareness through these situations, you are able to bring to the fore challenge and confrontation that offers more radical insight into yourself. In that offer lies the opportunity for more effective balancing and engagement with a world that is fast changing, complex and demanding.

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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