Dancing with Shadow; a key to unlocking great leadership

By Nicole Barrett

Jun 22, 2020


In a previous role, I canvassed the idea of introducing the concept of ‘shadow’ when working with leaders and their teams. My then Manager quickly dismissed the notion and, like a good little soldier, I left it alone. However, the avoidance of working with shadow stuck with me. I felt that an injustice occurred because a reluctance to work with shadow prevents leaders (and humans) from reaching their full potential and bountiful possibilities are being lost.

What is she talking about, this shadow?

In the early 1900’s, Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung described the shadow as the opposite self - the parts that we do not see or acknowledge. What gets pushed into the shadow is usually a reflection of early childhood experiences and the social constructs we develop within a given culture – we learn to polarise, make judgements and then internalise what is perceived to be acceptable and disown what is not. The shadow is kept hidden in the unconscious yet it is not necessarily all negative. There can be positive aspects residing in the shadow, particularly for people experiencing anxiety or low self-esteem.

The shadow looks something like this… If I learn that ‘strong’ is good, then the opposite ‘weak’ is bad. If showing strength makes me worthwhile and valued, then being weak means that I’m worthless. If strength makes me feel secure, then showing weakness is risky. In the end, if I identify my self-worth as strong, I reject weakness. Anything attributed as being remotely weak is pushed into the shadow as if it does not exist in me. In short, Jung defined the shadow self as all parts of ourselves seen as the opposite of our core ego identity.

When we don’t acknowledge the shadow aspects of ourselves, we project our shadow onto others. Because we do not see it, we are subject to it and the shadow can manifest in extremely unhelpful ways. Believe me, denying your shadow is like a machine gun projecting bullets and we need to get a grip on it. How this plays out is referred to as ‘Shadow Boxing’.  For example, if I’m a controlling type, my capacity to be vulnerable is in the shadow and therefor disowned and underdeveloped. When I see or experience my inner opposite (vulnerability) in someone else, I mistrust or judge them unworthy because I have internalised that vulnerability as bad.

You may have witnessed a current example of projection in President Trumps recent claims that Obama was a “grossly incompetent President”.  Setting politics aside, could this be an unconscious projection of Trump’s shadow? Equally, in what ways do we project the disowned parts of ourselves onto Trump?

Catching on?

We are hard wired to avoid danger and rejecting the shadow is a learned defence mechanism that serves to protect us from pain and death. Specifically, in Western culture, we have conveniently developed a blindness to our shadow in order to support our belief in an indestructible world. How is that working out for us? Continuing to work in the light, and fantasise that everything is good and perfect, is getting us nowhere! It simply isn’t real.

“We are all so vulnerable. So certain on the outside and often so uncertain within. The shadow is so much a part of each of us… Nothing is lost, we just forget where it is” Barry Brailsford, Song of the Circle.

The shadow is not the scary boogie man such as that depicted in the image here. There is no need to be afraid, it’s simply the opposite; the reflection in the mirror if you will – judgement/generosity; independent/needy; confident/insecure; hard working/lazy; resilient/fragile; authentic/guarded; introspective/gregarious and so on.

There is wisdom in the shadows

More than ever, it’s time for leaders to muscle up and illuminate the shadow because transforming our current reality is dependent on it. I can be calm ‘and’ I can be anxious; I can plan ‘and’ I can be spontaneous; I can lead ‘and’ I can follow; I can achieve ‘and’ I can fail. I can be all of these things and my actions are worthy. This is what it means to live fully in the human experience. I have many parts, all of them serve a purpose and come with gifts. So too do others. Just last week, Jacinda Ardern said, “one of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong”.

Your willingness to own the shadow aspects of the human condition has significant advantages for relationships, the way you take up your leadership role and your ability to hold diversity and conflicting ideas. Bringing the shadow into consciousness and shining the light on it increases your capacity for compassion for self and others in the face of perceived human imperfections and mistakes – if we continue to ignore, and therefore punish the shadow, everything remains the same. When the shadow aspects are conscious, it’s an object and you are no longer subject to it (unconscious). Surfacing what’s hidden in the shadow becomes a rich resource that’s available. It can be reflected on and used in purposeful ways.

The well-researched Universal Leadership Model (Anderson and Adams) points to the qualities of highly effective leaders who create exceptional business performance. They identify ‘Integral Leaders’ as those who have matured and developed an internal operating system that is built for complexity and designed for leading change in ambiguous environments. By integrating the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly aspects of themselves, this type of leader has the necessary insight and resources to meet significant diversity and conflict within the system of self. In doing so, they acquire a capacity to work with all kinds of people. These types of leaders are empathetic and authentically engage and unite the system more broadly. In the context of a global pandemic, racial and civic unrest, trade tensions and drastic economic downturns, a little more compassion and healing will serve us well as we ride the wave of the tsunami upon us.  

The shadow not only exists in individuals, it resides in systems. The benefit of systemically working with shadow can be seen in how the Australian Government responded to Covid-19. It wasn’t perfect, yet we witnessed opposites genuinely collaborating for the greater good. They committed to a shared purpose, to “to save lives and livelihoods”. And, with party politics set aside, much was achieved in a very short timeframe. In place of years of debate and opposition, within weeks, they achieved reform in the employment, education, health, finance and other sectors. Instead of firing bullets, like we typically observe in parliamentary sessions, they demonstrated polarity management. Just imagine the possibilities if political systems actually operated in service of the people they represent and the systems they govern on a daily basis? It’s these possibilities that excite me – evolving and taking leadership to the next level.

In the book Mastering Leadership, Anderson and Adams (2016) assert that if leaders want to go higher, they must go deeper, they “must descend into the shadow and explore the opposite of everything we think we are and what we think we know”. I couldn’t agree more and firmly believe that integrating the shadow aspects of ourselves is a fundamental shift we must make in order to not only survive, but thrive in these turbulent and transient times.

In 2020, I’m reasonably confident that we can agree; our bubble has been smashed to bits. Up until now, many have successfully avoided pain and constructed a fantasy that life is beautiful and perfect. With increasing complexity so clearly evident, now is the time to mature and develop as leaders and human beings. This means surfacing and exploring the unknown unknowns. In other words, what’s in shadows that might help us to see what is actively not being seen? We must withhold our propensity to make judgements and continuously probe, make meaning, experiment, calibrate diverse data from multiple sources and adapt iteratively.

“When we experience the world as “too complex” we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment” Kegan and Lahey, Immunity to Change.

If we continue to polarize the world and hold firm positions of good/bad, right/wrong, left/right or white/black, then I fear we are doomed to be trapped in circular blindness. The world will move from complexity to complete chaos and disorder. Look at the global context today, the potential for this reality is right here knocking on the door.

Your ability to hold diverse and conflicting points of view, without advocating one and dismissing others, is vital if we are to reshape and transform. Within this environment, dialogue flows freely, your people are no longer afraid of being afraid, radical ideas show up and breakthrough solutions to complex problems emerge.

Surfacing the shadow and reclaiming the disowned parts of ourselves is painful, yet the imperative for this evolutionary development path is clearly being evoked. In these current times, this is the work of leadership that needs to be done. Our current context is challenging you to dance with the shadow, bring it to the table and learn how to listen and talk about it.

Useful tips:

  • Allow yourself to experience and use the full array of emotions that come with the human condition - especially fear and psychological pain. Feel deeply, lean in to feelings of shame, vulnerability, guilt or anger and then work to uncover what you haven’t yet seen. When you identify, name and understand these emotions, they are a resource available for you to consciously use in purposeful ways.
  • Become an observer, talk less, listen more and pay attention to what happens in your body, your mind and your heart. Seek maturity in your leadership by taking note of when you polarise things. Instead of good/bad, guilty/not-guilty - what other possibilities are there? What is the ‘and’? What is the real debate that needs to be had and explored?
  • Don’t sacrifice your humanity for the sake of feeling comfortable and secure. Find your pain points, learning edges and growth opportunities by regularly reflecting on and identifying gaps between what you say and what you do. Explore when you are stuck in repetitive patterns and examine the stories and narratives you tell yourself with the aim of disturbing them.
  • Willingly expose yourself to differing views and bad news, and then examine how you react to them. If your people always agree or have stopped contributing, this is a sign that you are projecting your shadow and given up your authentic self for comfort or status.
  • Own that what you know now may not be helpful in the current context, and stimulate yourself and others in search of what you do not know. Co-operate, collaborate and act jointly in order to untangle (rather than solve) the complexity at hand.
  • Watch out for defining problems and solutions too quickly in an effort to decrease your anxiety. Slipping into the easy, quick conversation or perspective taking in response to complex situations is likely to be a defensive distraction.
  • In times where rapid responses are being called for, pay attention to what happens to you when, based on the data you have, you make a decision that doesn’t turn out to be the best one to make. Do you punish yourself? Or are you forgiving, allowing yourself to reset and take action based on new information as it comes to bear. Do your best, with what you have, in this moment.
  • Identify where capitalistic principles are driving your thought processes and actions. Be aware of the ways in which you support these principles by enriching the predatory few at a cost to the longer-term benefit of the wider community and planet.
  • Set ego aside, find your purpose and the soul of the whole, accepting all others as your equal. We are connected and what resides in you, also resides in me.

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