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the gift of a leader's shadow

In a recent conversation with a C-suite leader, we were lamenting on a reality of leadership today. Rather than more ease emerging with the maturity, experience and wisdom of being a grown-up, the strains of leadership seem to grow in relentless fashion. For brief moments leaders feel relaxed and equal to their challenges, and in the next moments find themselves in overwhelm and overdrive, dealing with ripples of disruption and inadequate control.

While there are many forces acting upon leaders, the one I want to talk about today is the “leadership shadow,” a phenomenon brought to life by European leadership expert and executive coach Erik de Haan:

With more demands and responsibility arrives an inner conflict between new leadership qualities and their accompanying shadows.

Sunny energies of leadership are called forth, such as – strength, confidence, gratitude, optimism, resilience, courage, and calm. And, just as every force of motion has an equal counterforce (Newton’s 3rd law), along with the sunshine comes shadows, the opposing dark forces like weakness, doubt, criticism, pessimism, rigidity, fear, and frenzy. In his book "The Leadership Shadow" de Haan describes 11 common personality shadow patterns (Chapter 5). de Haan also cites research which concluded that 98% of senior executives, but only 25% of middle managers, have a least one shadow-side trait which brings strain, overdrive, and even derailment.

Let’s pause and note that the polarity of sunny qualities and shadows is likely a universal human experience for anyone taking on new challenges and responsibilities in an uncertain situation beyond control. Everyone who becomes responsible for the welfare of others, including parenting or teaching children, or leading teams, groups, communities, and organizations, develops the strengths to lead right along with the opposing shadows that cause strain and compensating overdrive.

These shadows can show up in moments when we are holding ourselves together or when we step away from the demands:

  • You spend your week assuring your team that a negative surprise in the marketplace will lead to a good outcome, then you worry all weekend about the downsides.

  • You commit to a bold new product launch, inspiring confidence in your customers, followed by a wave of panic deep into the night when sleep is what you need most.

  • You model resilient calm when you have a difficult conversation with an investor or board member about a project that had a setback; while your inner world is disturbed by doubt and anxiety.

What happens after shadows and their strains are created? Often, to deal with the strain of the downs generated by our ups, we find ourselves in overdrive, either in assertive modes – we push harder, get impatient or angry, complain vehemently, or withdrawal modes – we pull back, avoid, feel ill, mislead, or disengage.

If it’s NOT possible to avoid new shadows and the strains, surges and retreats they bring along, then a new set of skills for relating to shadows is the plat du jour. Drawing from leaders in mindfulness and emotional intelligence (including Steven Hayes, Marc Brackett, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Dan Siegel, Jon Kabat-Zinn), find some quiet moments to meet your shadow, welcome its growth edge, and invite its gifts:

  1. Welcome a shadow – its dark side, the strain and overdrive. Say hello, be warm and gentle, give it an accurate name. Appreciate its humanness and vulnerability. Listen and learn from its perspective and what it cares about most.

  2. Accept a shadow – a new challenge, a new strength? yes, and a new shadow. Don’t bark at the moon, I sometimes say. C’est la vie of a leader.

  3. Detach from a shadow – it’s only a part of you and it's reacting based on your past experiences not current reality. It’s calling you to upgrade your consciousness. Ask it to move aside and give your mind space so you can access new gifts of wisdom and truth.

  4. Expand your mind - as far as it will go, well past the shadow and inner conflict. Allow new insight and wisdom to appear. Feel a small shift (integration) to more calm when a bright, sunny part and its shadow integrate.

To wrap up, what then is the point of having leadership shadows?

Stepping up to more challenges - inviting more strengths, and the accompanying shadows - is stepping onto an upward spiral of consciousness bringing more grace and ease with greater complexity and demands.

Stand in your sunshine. Step out of your sunshine, Step into your shadow. Find your shadow's gift. Repeat.

Onward and upward.

Coach Meg

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