Actualized Leadership: How is Your Leadership Shadow Created?

Actualized Leadership: How is Your Leadership Shadow Created?

The Shadow is that hidden, repressed, and for the most part inferior and guilt-laden part of our personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors.
Carl Jung

I had originally planned to shift gears with this entry to discuss the lighter aspects of leadership, namely the characteristics of Actualized Leaders.  However, I received a couple of messages asking the same question: Where does the Shadow come from, or how is it created and sustained?  We’ve touched on these issues indirectly but never actually answered head-on: Where does your Shadow come from?  So, if you will forgive one last lap around the Shadow track, and also my ending the previous sentence with a preposition, let’s turn our attention to answering this question.

Before shining some light on this issue, let’s again carefully define Leadership Shadows:

The extreme or dark side of our motive needs that are grounded in irrational thoughts, unfounded fears and dysfunctional and ultimately self-defeating behaviors.

For example, the Fear of Rejection Leadership Shadow is the extreme side of the need for affiliation and the Affirmer Style.  Under stress, when the Affirmer senses conflict, irrational thoughts such as “being with someone, anyone, is better than being alone” trigger feelings of insecurity and weakness, which underpin an unfounded fear of rejection or separation.  These thoughts and emotions, in turn, lead to being needy, overly accommodating and conflict avoidant, which often results in staying in unhealthy relationships (both at home and at work).  And as you may recall, Viktor Frankl reminds us that the more we fear being alone, the more likely we will be.

We also made the distinctions between Jung’s concept of the Collective Shadow, our Personal Shadow, and Leadership Shadows.  This blog’s opening quote harkens back to the concept of the Collective Shadow – the collective unconscious or DNA of human history, including Archetypes such as the Heroic Warrior, the Martyr and the Wise Old Man.  Our Personal Shadow, mostly closely linked to Freud’s concept of the “id” and perhaps most famously portrayed as “Mr. Hyde,” contains a variety of repressed thoughts and emotions such as rage, guilt, lust and envy.  Finally, as previously discussed in great detail, Leadership Shadows are the three extreme counterparts to the motive needs: Fear of Failure, Fear of Rejection and Fear of Betrayal.

For our purposes we are going to explore where our Leadership Shadows originate.  Psychologists usually agree that almost everyone, including you and me, experiences some sort of trauma or shaming at an early age that causes a “split” in our personality or style.  This experience can be as innocent as telling a child not to be selfish or to “be nice,” or it can be as horrific as abuse.  The end result, with varying degrees of intensity, is the same: the “good” or light side is separated from our “bad” or Shadow side.

In their book “Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership” (which I very highly recommend), authors McIntosh and Rima use the term “existential debt” to describe the sense of accountability, responsibility and guilt that we carry with us from these traumatic experiences.  For example, if your parents divorced, depending on your age at the time you may have blamed yourself for their split, thinking “if I had only been better they would have stayed together.”  This sense of personal failure triggers an emotional debt, grounded in guilt, which directs much of our behavior from then on.  It is only through deep reflection and profound insight that we realize that we should not and, in fact, cannot pay that debt.  In that moment of awareness, people often report feeling completely and totally transformed.

However, individuals that have not yet experienced that insight and resulting liberation carry these heavy burdens which contain guilt, rage, jealously and the like.  The negative thoughts and emotions trigger behaviors which we try to hide or ignore, in effect creating the need for us to keep secrets.  Remember, keeping secrets feeds your Shadow which prevents you from reaching your ultimate potential, and completes the dysfunction of the Shadow Cycle.

So, what are we supposed to do with all this stuff?  Well, I believe that there is a profound sense of “I’m going to be okay” that occurs when you realize that everyone else is fighting their own battle.  While our stories are all unique, we are all on the same journey.  When you develop the desire to deeply reflect on your past, and understand that it is very likely controlling your present and determining your future, you may just find the courage to break the Shadow Cycle, forgive yourself and others, and let the past reside just there – once and for all.  Your future is calling; you, your spouse or partner, your family and your colleagues deserve it.

Next time (I promise) we will begin to examine the characteristics and habits of Actualized Leaders so that we can begin to channel our internal insights into more productive external behaviors, and reclaim our inheritance by living into our highest potential.


Photo provided courtesy of Hammad Bhatti

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