Shadow and Leadership
Why Tracking Your Shadow Is Essential for Being a Leader (and a Better Human)
“Those of us who readily embrace leadership, especially public leadership, tend toward extroversion, which often means ignoring what is happening inside ourselves. If we have any sort of inner life, we “compartmentalize” it, walling it off from our public work. This, of course, allows the shadow to grow unchecked, until it emerges larger-than-life into the public realm, a problem we are well-acquainted with in our own domestic politics. Leaders need not only the technical skills to manage the external world — they need the spiritual skills to journey inward toward the source of both shadow and light.”
- Parker Palmer, in his essay Shadows & Spirituality, from his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Read the full essay here.)
Shadow work is the practice of understanding the parts of self you deny or are not conscious of. These denied or unprocessed, or unintegrated, parts of us show up in ways that are not always tidy for the other humans we get to work with. Without fully examining our own personal baggage, our own unexamined stuff may be coming out sideways.
- What drives us to do what we do?
- Why do good people do bad things?
- What is our relationship with power and status?
How do We Recognize Our Shadow?
Shadow shows up when we have unresolved issues, or unsorted baggage, about our beliefs and relationship to ourselves. Shadow is that part of us that says: “it’s better to be small and inauthentic than emotionally crushed.” It limits our full expression. It’s often a part of us that wants to keep us safe.
Shadows are cast by our unsorted psychological baggage. This includes the parts of us that are unfinished, stuffed under the rug, locked in our inner closets out of shame, and any other aspects of our unresolved issues that we tote along with us, inside us, day to day.
In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer notes that these five aspects of our personality and experience of being human are capable of casting shadows in our lives and for those in it:
- Insecurity about identity and self-worth
- The belief that the world is a hostile place
- Functional Atheism (the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us)
- Fears (especially fear of chaos and uncertainty)
- Denial of death and fear of failure
Palmer urges us: “As we, as leaders, are to cast less shadow and more light, we need to ride certain monsters all the way down, understand the shadows they create and experience the transformation that can come as we “get into” our own spiritual lives.”
Or, as Jung said: “Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will control our lives and we will call it fate.”
This is the importance of shadow work: If we don’t work on our stuff, our stuff will work on us. It will work on us while even our best mindset intentions are to have an amazing life. And it will show up everywhere projecting its own reality in front of us like a bad movie — or perhaps recurring situations you keep finding yourself in — until it is brought to light. Once we see it and learn how it operates, we can recognize it when it shows up.
Reclaiming what’s in shadow brings those pieces of you back into wholeness. It allows you to see the projection and walk out of that theater into your more dimensional life. It allows you to harness your potential more effectively. Embracing what’s shadowed helps you find a tender love for yourself, warts and all.
“Our dark shadow can be called a cellar of our unexamined shame,” notes therapist and author David Richo. “Our positive shadow is an attic of our unclaimed valuables.”
Unchecked shadow shows up in infidelity, sexual misconduct, fiscal irresponsibility, misuse of power, and putting on a face for the crowd that’s different from the life you experience with those closest to you. What’s called for in our work is for all that makes us human — -the vulnerability, the self-inquiry, our true voice. How we do this with ourselves shows up in our work and our ability to be present with those we are called to serve. The work starts with self, first.
How do we go about doing the work to save ourselves from ourselves, and subsequently save those around us from the collateral damage that results from acting out from your shadow and leading an unexamined life? This is the question to circumambulate in our own hearts. Because, if you’re not doing your own work — your inner work — you’re not living a congruent life. (In other words, you’re not becoming fully you.) And, your work in life ripples out from that place of congruency.
Thomas Merton tells us: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.” (Italics mine)
Shadow Tracking: How, Where, and When Does Shadow Show Up?
Grab a pen and paper and jot down responses to these questions.
- How do you handle failure?
- How do you handle conflict? (How did your family handle conflict?)
- How do you handle chaos and uncertainty?
- What is your greatest fear?
- What was not talked about when you were growing up?
- What behavior do you judge yourself the most for?
- When you think about the people you admire the most, what traits do they have that make you admire them?
- What are the challenges you are facing at work, with colleagues, and/or at home?
- What trait or traits are you most critical about in your teammates, partner, friends, family, or community?
- What role do you tend to play in relationships?
- When you are defensive, shut down, or reactive when engaging with people, what are you believing about yourself?
What did you learn about yourself in that short exploration?
Shadow work isn’t easy, yet it is essential to becoming better humans. (And we know that better humans make better leaders. And, those better leaders create more humane work environments.)
Dr. Nicole LePera, author of How to Do The Work, reminds us:
“The most terrifying thing to human beings isn’t actually public speaking, or death. It’s facing ourselves. Most of us spend a lifetime running, distracting ourselves, from our shadow (unconscious) self and the pain we are too afraid to feel. When we don’t witness our shadow, we project all the parts of ourselves we’ve denied onto others. When we witness our shadow with curiosity we can begin to integrate these denied parts of self and find peace.”
David Richo writes in his book Shadow Dance: Liberating the Power and Creativity of Your Dark Side that:
“The shadow is that part of us that is incompatible with who we think we are or are supposed to be […] The challenge is in accepting ourselves all the way to the bottom: admitting and holding rather than denying and eschewing our arrogance, our self-centeredness, our will to coerce others, and any other dark truths we cannot face about ourselves. All these constitute our negative shadow side, which can turn out to be not so much a threat as a promise: we can find the best in us in what is bad in us.”
As a leader, how might your shadow stuff be showing up in your work or organization?
CEO Shadow Casting — An Exercise.
Bringing Awareness to Leadership Shadow Manifestation in Organizations.
- List the virtues and values that are of paramount importance for your organization.
- List their opposites.
- List the undesirable characteristics of your organization. These may include undesirable behaviors or attitudes exhibited by all or some of your organization. Consider, also, characteristics you’re aware of, and those mentioned by others that you may not have witnessed yourself.
- Thinking of the two which evoke the strongest reactions:
- Are either of these undesirable qualities personally unsettling or eliciting a particularly strong reaction in you?
- Are either of these qualities linked to anything you’ve listed in #2?
- Are either of these qualities in any way similar to patterns of behavior you’ve experienced repeatedly in your relationships outside the company?
- Are either of these similar in any way to behavior or attitudes you have that: Undermine your own best self or shoot yourself in the foot? Cause yourself familiar grief? Evoke fear, which may seem familiar, blocking or stunting your own growth?
- If you responded “Yes” to any of the questions in #4, or feel that you may somehow carry responsibility, write down the quality as a potential Shadow quality you may be unintentionally cultivating in your own organization.
- Journal on how you may be complicit in fostering these attitudes or behaviors in your organization. What are possible responses for change?
Ready for more Shadow Work?
Dive into these resources.
Exploring one’s shadow is no easy undertaking. The idea of getting to know what Jung referred to as, “That which I do not wish to be” is rarely considered an exciting prospect. Yet we implore all leaders to be courageous and get to know and learn to work with their shadow. It is only when we do the work to make the unconscious conscious, that we are able to build true compassion for ourselves and others; freeing us to become the leaders we were born to become. James Hollis is a Jungian analyst, author, and lecturer whose work has inspired and influenced us at Reboot. In this episode, Jerry and James talk in-depth about the Jungian concept of shadow, how shadow shows up in leadership, and what we can do once we become aware of our shadow.
“A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell.” — Parker Palmer
This is a free course delivered to you in a series of emails full of content for you to reflect on at your own time and pace. In this course, Jim Marsden will guide you through understanding what shadow is, how to recognize shadow in your life and work, how shadow presents in partnership, understanding the loyal soldier and other survival strategies, reclaiming your shadow, and the role of shadow in the organization. Each day contains selected readings about shadow, a guided journaling exercise, and additional materials for continued learning.
- Reboot: Leadership and Art of Growing Up, by Jerry Colonna
- Why Good People Do Bad Things, by James Hollis
- Shadow Dance, by David Richo
“When you die and go to heaven, our maker is not going to ask, ‘why didn’t you discover the cure for such and such? why didn’t you become the Messiah?’ The only question we will be asked in that precious moment is ‘why didn’t you become you?’” — Elie Wiesel