On Leadership Shadows

The Shadow is one of Carl Jung’s most powerful concepts, an archetype of personal and collective unconsciousness. Its relevance is that all of us have parts of ourselves that we do not know, and yet in the maze of our lives, we seek unknowingly to understand. Shadow, said Jung, is everything we have no wish to be — an amalgam of weaknesses and embarrassing, shameful qualities as well as a great deal of repressed “stuff” (such as an unexpressed creativity) that is pure gold. All of what we attempt to hide from the world by first hiding from ourselves is Shadow. The inner push-pull of needing to know ourselves yet keeping parts of who we are distant from consciousness results not just in inner conflict but also the reflection of that conflict in our outer lives. We discover ourselves in repeating patterns of events and relationships that we have attracted, drawing us closer to knowing what we need to know, but are afraid to know about who we are. As Jung reportedly said (perhaps this is only a paraphrase), “What you don’t bring to consciousness appears in your life as fate.”

If you want to know more about Shadow, you might try this book or this one.

The relevance of the Shadow archetype for leadership is staggering. For it is precisely these hidden qualities and characteristics that leak into relationships with those being led. It is often said that the culture of a workplace is the product of a leader’s own personality. But how much does the leader know of his or her personality and its actual effects? For example a leader will ask others to overcome a problem facing an organization, and in the efforts of people to overcome that problem they discover how much the leader is unconsciously colluding in creating the problem. However, this is undiscussable with the leader, lest there be retaliation.

Some years ago I listened to the CEO of a large midwestern company make a speech to hundreds of supervisors in his organization, exhorting them to help support and help grow the employees who they were privileged enough to work with. “You are mother and father to these young people who start their working life here,” I remember him saying. Later, talking with people who had been with the company for some time, I learned that he had the bad habit of angrily and abusively dressing employees down in public — something people accepted about him, but perhaps not exactly in line with his stated preference for supervisory relationships. And, of course, this contradiction was undiscussable. Sometimes after his tantrums it was rumored he had to lay down on a cot in his office to sleep, thoroughly exhausted by the scathing exercise of his power. In an entirely different company, in which I happened to be doing some interviewing, the CEO had a reputation for blowing up in a way that caused his pant legs to hike up, with employees rating him on whether today’s explosion was a “one leg or a two leg tantrum.” And then there was one of two top managers at a nuclear power plant who had a reputation for his famous “meltdowns.” It appeared that all of these men in top leadership roles simply accepted their angry reactions and rationalized them away as unimportant aspects of their own styles even while publicly espousing an entirely different set of personal and corporate values.

How could this be so? How can such incongruity exist in a single person?


And we all have it. You and I may say to ourselves, but that’s not me. I’m not such a hypocrite. And in fact, I may say, I condemn such hypocrisy. People like that make me sick, I may say without even a moment’s reflection. And yet I remain unaware of how I really feel — which is angry and fearful and self-righteous. You see? And while you or I might think we are not doing so, in that moment we find our own ways into revenge, if only in the way we think about an “us” and a “them.” We have already subtly learned to retaliate against the people we say we hate because, after all, they retaliate against us. This is commonly known as the beginning of a war.

In a way we are all about two or three years old when it comes to Shadow. Have you ever seen a young child put her hands over her eyes and repeat that charming provocation, “You can’t see me!” That’s how Shadow operates. We put our hands over our own eyes and imagine no one can see us. Where Shadow is concerned, we can’t tell the difference between our state and the state of others — but we think we can. And Lord help the person who suggests otherwise in an effort to awaken us. This is one way to define what it means to be unconscious.

Mostly, we find it easy to see Shadow in others, particularly when our own Shadow is triggered. Everywhere else we may notice incongruity, contradition, weakness, everywhere but in ourselves. But perhaps our very certainty that we see another’s Shadow is an aspect of our own still waiting to be discovered.

A supervisor in a training class I was conducting nervously stood up and condemned the lack of integrity among senior managers in her organization. It was a small organization and they were were in the room, somewhat embarrassed and angry. Late the next day, as the session continued, she went through waste paper baskets searching for crumpled notes by these managers, searching for something that would prove her earlier indictment of them. “See,” she said, when she later brought me the notes she had fished out. “See how they are!” Indeed, the crumpled papers proved that the senior managers had been passing notes that commented about some of the people in the session, then throwing them away. The comments were in poor taste, bad jokes, an example of bad judgment all. But for her they had also become something much bigger. Before she’d brought them to me, she’d taken them around in the background to everyone else in the session, including the people commented about, a profoundly embarrassing “gotcha” in its own right. Generally, I’ve come to think of Shadow as any time we enact some form of retaliation while claiming it’s the others who lack integrity. Were the managers justified in doing what they did? Was the supervisor justified? You decide.

Shadow can be a tremendous teacher — if we can stand the process of learning. The fellow at the nuclear plant had an epiphany one day that his behavior was getting in his own way. He had thought of himself as a “good leader” and a “good person,” and one day he began to acknowledge how embarrassed he was about his blow-ups. How could such an insight happen? I don’t know. Maybe it was a book he read, maybe a moment with one of his children, maybe he just got tired of it. Anyway, he did what we all must do, which is turn and face the Shadow, and ask for help. It was an honor for me to help him. He already had so many of the answers. I asked him, “Do you know when you are about to blow up?” He told me, yes, he did, and I asked him how he knew. He said he could tell by the force with which he was gripping something, the edge of the table, or a pen, or the arm of a chair. He said he could see his knuckles turn white. “What will you do?” I asked him. He found his own solution by promising himself he would notice his anger before it overcame him and he would leave the room for a moment before trying to continue the conversation. Now this doesn’t ask the deeper questions about the source of the offense that was driving him to blow-up so often. Sometimes that’s the product of life conditioning such as projecting old hurts as a child onto colleagues who happen to use the wrong tone of voice. But it was enough for him to begin to change the game. I remember him saying to me “I used to think I wasn’t that kind of boss, but as it turns out I am that kind of boss. A few days after we had a conversation he called me to tell me about an incident in which he physically got up and walked out of the room for moment. When he came back, quieter, calmer, the conversation continued uninterrupted and respectfully, and afterwards he felt so proud that he was able to make this small change for himself and the organization. He had, of course, acknowledged to the group beforehand that he was now working on this aspect of himself and would they help by allowing him a moment if he needed it? This I believe is what a brave person, learning, looks like.

Of course, for any one of us, it isn’t just anger that can leak. It can be just about anything; selfishness, greed, manipulation, envy, revenge. I’ve come to think that the dynamic of retaliation and the fear of retaliation in organizations is driven by individual and collective Shadow, particularly the Shadow of leaders who do not notice their own emotional slides, or who have learned to excuse them as either necessary or unimportant to their style. Shadow triggers Shadow and soon the culture perpetuates itself as a confused mixture of the way we say we are and the way we really are.

One thing seems certain. We are responsible for our Shadows, as much as our more conscious decisions and actions. If we turn to face our own crap — whatever it is — a blessing can descend. You don’t have to be a religious person to sense that redemption is hidden in the Shadow as much as the sin or that liberation is concealed by the karma that chains us to the very oldest patterns of our lives.

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  • Vincenza wrote:

    Your post made me think of this poem/prayer by Debbie Ford:

    “Drenched in Holiness”
    Dear God, Spirit, Divine Mother,
    On this day I ask You to grant this request ~
    May I know who I am and what I am, every moment of every day
    May I be a catalyst for light and love
    and bring inspiration to those whose eyes I meet
    May I have the strength to stand tall in the face of conflict and the courage to speak my voice, even when I’m scared
    May I have the humility to follow my heart,
    and the passion to live my Soul’s desires
    May I seek to know the highest truth
    and dismiss the gravitational pull of my lower self
    May I embrace and love the totality of myself ~
    my darkness as well as my light
    May I be brave enough to hear my heart ~
    to let it soften so that I may gracefully choose faith over fear
    Today is my day to surrender anything that stands between
    the sacredness of my humanity and my divinity
    May I be drenched in my Holiness
    and engulfed by Your love
    May all else melt away
    And so it is

  • Thank you, Vincenza. A very beautiful prayer!

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