Does my shadow look big in this?
Leaders must take responsibility for their shadows – the unseen and unacknowledged parts of them that trap potential.
Jan 16, 2019

When we walk in the sunshine, our presence casts a shadow. In leadership it is the same. As our career unfolds and we reach higher and more influential positions, we share our gifts. Our talents will be put to good use and their impact will be reflected back to us in good results, bonuses and a sense of achievement. What we may be less aware of is that our shadow also has an impact.

Carl Jung wrote: “Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” Our shadow develops because there are parts of us that did not get integrated as we grew up, parts of us that were marginalised and seen as unacceptable, be it for reasons of culture, gender, upbringing or education.

The poet Robert Bly likened the shadow to a black bag that we carry over our shoulder, into which we throw all our unwanted feelings and experiences. The bag gets heavier as we grow older and inhibits us from fulfilling our potential. At some stage we need to put the bag down, open it up, peer inside and start to unpack what is by now a rotten and festering pile of discarded experiences.

What might our leadership shadow look like? Unexpressed anger that explodes at the wrong person at the wrong time; unacknowledged ambition that leads to the need to put others down; micromanaging out of the need to be in control; too much care and concern for staff to the point that it smothers their creativity; generating many ideas but realising none; bullying in the name of achieving targets. The list is long and our shadows can be dark indeed.

The higher we climb, the greater the shadow we cast. The cost of a leader’s shadow in terms of staff morale, loyalty and belonging can be immense. A leader who does not consciously work with their shadow can leave devastation in their wake, as jailed MPs Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken and Chris Huhne exemplify.

Given the potential dynamite that lies in the shadow, and given that it is, by definition, hard to see, how can leaders become aware of it and then work to integrate it?

First, it is helpful simply to acknowledge that we have a shadow. The next step is to cultivate awareness. Shadows generate tension in our bodies. I am thinking one thing but doing another. I am hiding my true motives. Nobody must know I feel such a fraud or so lonely. Such behaviours cost us energy and create stress, so it is helpful to develop a daily reflective practice (writing a journal, time alone, meditation, talking with a confidante) where we can be radically honest about how we feel physically and emotionally, how we are behaving and what is driving us.

Colleagues experience our shadows and can be useful sources of information if we are open to their feedback. They will experience our double signals, where we say one thing but mean another. They may have a gut feeling that in some situations we are not to be trusted. Finding creative ways to receive honest feedback from people we trust will yield invaluable information about how our shadows are playing out.

Having developed some awareness of what shadow we may be casting, we need to work to integrate and transform it. Sometimes, simply being aware of our shadow potential is enough. For example, if I know I have some issues about male competition, I may catch myself when I am next in a potentially competitive situation with another man and consciously choose more of a collaborative approach.

Executive coaching is a great arena for shadow work, providing a mirror for us to see ourselves more clearly and supporting us to generate choices about other ways of thinking and behaving. If the issues are deep-seated and appear immutable then a more therapeutic intervention might be necessary.

Shadow work is an essential part of a leader’s practice. We have what Jung called a teleological longing for wholeness, a responsibility to ourselves to live as full and integrated a life as possible. Equally, we have a responsibility to the people we lead, and the organisations we serve, to be aware of where we might unwittingly sabotage ourselves, our staff and the company.

But it is dirty, difficult and unpleasant work. As Jung said:

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure is, however, unpleasant and therefore not popular.”

Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones asked in the Harvard Business Review: “Why should anyone be led by you?” Leaders who wish to work on their shadows should try and find the answer to that. It may help them become the kind of leader others want to follow.