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The Shadow of Great Leadership

7715632_sLeaders are the target of a lot of writing. Blogs, articles, courses. I know. I’m one of the perpetrators. Executives, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs are leaders – of small to large teams and organizations. If you are one, the writing targets you.

Much of the advice is useful. Especially articles and blogs that focus on emotional intelligence and what we’re learning from neuroscience that directly impacts adult behavior change. More and more research shows that self-aware leaders move from being effective to being great. (See my discussion on LinkedIn.)

Understanding themselves well, leads these great leaders to understanding others – which is better than simply sympathizing. Why? Because understanding leads to compassion – and compassion is not hierarchical. Its holistic and egalitarian.

Where the stage goes dark (pun intended) is on the shadow-side of leadership. Very little is written about the shadow side of leadership – for good reason. Shadow work takes courage, takes time and is often difficult.

And there can be little self-awareness until some shadow work occurs. Uncovering for yourself what has been hidden surfaces what you project onto others. And  once you begin to see the projections, you can take responsibility for your part.

In addition to knowing yourself better, you grow the capacity to understand others – how they operate in the world, on your team in your organization. Wouldn’t that be useful going forward?

Its also true that shadow work is deep, scary and often avoided or sacrificed to more “skill based” development – like presentation skills or accounting. But because it is so fundamental, it cannot be overlooked when  a leader wants to make deep, lasting shifts.

So what is shadow work and what does working with it look like?

William Faulkner, the great American writer said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  

That’s a good way to begin thinking about your shadow. Its the part of you, arising from your past that lives on in your unconscious, but acts out in day to day behavior. It shows up is the judgments you hold about others and in your interpretations of their actions.

Why? The parts of you, as a child, that weren’t appreciated or accepted may have gone far underground, but you’re still carrying them. And when something triggers a strong reaction, you can be sure, your shadow is behind it.

Also, as David Richo, author, therapist and teacher explained, your projections onto others sheds light on your own material.When you look at the judgment you make of others, you can discern some things in yourself you avoid seeing.

Are you triggered by a controlling partner (in business or life)? Most likely there’s a controlling part of you that you’re denying, not willing to see. And the way to work with that is to begin to admit to yourself what lurks beneath consciousness.

You may shy away from the controlling parts of yourself from an experience (or belief) that controlling people are manipulative, demanding and worse, domineering. Whatever the reason, as a leader, until you surface and begin to shift your responses, your leadership suffers.

Shadow work takes skillful, ongoing support. You can’t do it alone. So, great leaders get that support, from coaches, therapists and skilled professional…and they do the work! They know that reaching their full potential requires it. And they demonstrate courage in taking on the challenge.

Unlike talking therapy, shadow-work requires action in the office, on the tennis court, at home. It includes specific practices, tailored to the individual after an in depth conversation and assessment, and its an ongoing process of discovery, awareness and action.

Your shadow doesn’t just hide the dark, often negative qualities we think of first – anger, jealousy, greed. It can also hide loyalty, generosity, brilliance, empathy.

The good news about this process is that once begun, uncovering the qualities liberates your energy – the energy you’ve burnt up in keeping the lid on – for creative pursuits. Innovation comes from that creativity as does balance – qualities that great leaders share.

While there are so many positive outcomes from doing this work, it comes with the warning that shadow-work is not for the feint of heart. It requires courage, open-mindedness, commitment and follow-through. Wow, aren’t those the qualities those myriad articles, blogs and lectures aimed at leadership underscore?


Annette is a former high school principal, a certified Integral Coach, an Accelerated Learning specialist and curriculum developer. She is an NLP trained executive coach and co-author of The Game of Truth: A Humorous Guide to Self-Discovery.Annette has taught Power Reading, Memory and Creativity courses around the globe. Her coaching and teaching has taken her to South Africa, Greece, Singapore and Moscow and she has presented workshops at Stanford, USC, Wellesley, Amherst, George Mason University and University of Arizona. Annette has facilitated Ropes Courses and led executive trainings at Anheiser Busch and Nikon. She counts among her clients leaders at NASA, Genentech, Twitter, Clorox, Intel, Cisco and SpaWars. Click here to receive to get your 5 Minute Planning Tool.

Dancing in the Dark: Part Two

“Before you can see the light, you have to deal with the darkness.”

– Dan Millman

Experience is precious. Let’s investigate it!  We explored curiosity in Part One.  Why is it so important in shadow work? Curiosity occurs in freedom… freedom meaning here a space uncluttered by assumptions, judgments, suppositions and filled with a dynamic desire to learn, to know.   When we are truly curious, rather than compelled by some formulaic methodology, we allow our intuition into the room.  And, when we aren’t curious, a compelling question to ask  ourselves is, “What  shadow element am I supporting by keeping this door shut?” What we avoid being curious about is a powerful clue to some element of our shadow.

In our families, we learned that being curious about certain subjects was taboo. Yet certain topics brought not only recognition but rewards. The messages about the subjects to avoid were often further complicated by indirect signals (like facial expressions, shallow breathing or changing the topic). Bypassing our own verbal markers, we “metabolized” these messages without actually deconstructing them. They became shadowy, but strongly informed future patterns in us.

Some families disallowed the sad emotions – grief, despair, disappointment, for example,  weren’t accepted. In others, topics like money, mental health or sex were taboo.

Here’s a useful exploration.Where we were free to be curious, around what topics and where we we restricted? What arises ( sensations, emotions and ideas) when we touch into those unacceptable subjects, the ones that we were discouraged from pursuing. Observing ourselves as we explore our curiosity helps identify areas where we have dark shadows.

The next step, after identifying these areas is to see what strategies you employ in keeping parts of yourself hidden. Try this self-observation ( SO).

As you do this SO, try to get closer and closer to the experience of each moment of Presence and note more and more exactly what the experience is like emotionally and somatically (contractions, heat, numbness, energy, breathing, pulsing, heaviness, lightness – whatever).

Then, each day for ONE WEEK ONLY, YET IN DETAIL, take a few moments to note how these showed up in you: Be specific. Be rigorous.

Fear: (projection about the future)

Attachment: (inability to let go of a thought, idea, thing that doesn’t serve you)

Control: (choice that keeps you in the manager’s seat)

Entitlement: (a sense that something – space, action, response is owed you)

Manipulation: (indirect behavior involving an other to get something you want)

Anxiety: (projection onto the present based on the past)

What am I discovering about myself? What patterns emerge? What new questions do I have?


As the pattern surfaces, name it  gently and welcome it. Then exaggerate the emotional and physical sensations that arise with the thoughts (like turning up the brightness knob on the TV). Stay with the discomfort.  Check it out fully – what texture does it take, what color, what scent, what size, what taste. Staying with the experience offers up fresh insights… what the intelligence of this experience ( protection, avoidance, distraction for example). Once this pattern served a younger, less resourceful me. Does it serve me now? If not, I invite it to loosen (and eventually to leave) its grip.

By shining the light of awareness on our pattern,  we use less energy to keep the pattern in place and the place dark. We free some of our energy for other parts of living for our creativity and we take back our power.

Dancing in the Dark (Part One)

Dancing in the Dark
(Part One)

In our living, there’s a dance partner we’ve often ignored, or worse.  Sometimes, we’ve attempted annihilating this partner. Certainly, we’ve confined it to the dark (often called the unconscious).  This partner goes by many names. Here, we’ll call the part of ourselves we’ve discounted, hated or ignored, our shadow. It is our unlived life.

Our shadow is the part of our self, which is incompatible with who we take our self to be.  Frequently, “shadow” is narrowly interpreted to mean those “negative” parts of ourselves we hope never come to light – the parts around which we feel shame, guilt or regret. Actually, any part of ourselves we refuse to bring forward, our brilliance or generosity for instance, or our innocence or vulnerability – any part that we do not wish to see, or acknowledge becomes our shadow.

Roger Housden says in introducing  Risking Everything

“…Yet it is precisely the crack in our lives that can let the light pour through. We do not spring from life perfectly formed. We each have our fault lines, and it is not by turning away from them that life suddenly takes on its full glory. No, I believe that we come to our fullness not in spite of our darkness, but in the embrace of it.”

When we do not see parts of ourselves, we cannot integrate them. Worse, we cannot release the creative energy trapped there.  Our failure to integrate these parts limits our vitality and power. This shadow partner then controls the dance by limiting our steps, holding us back, even shouting, “No,” as we attempt new moves.

Last night, as I was sleeping
I dreamt – marvelous error!–
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.”

– Antonio Machado

When our shadow keeps us from stepping onto the dance floor or moving freely, creatively, constraint, stiffness step in.  Unable to live fully into all of ourselves, our authenticity suffers.  We then have to devise strategies to compensate for the moves we cannot make. Our potential for creativity and inner power is diminished.

How can we move towards being fully ourselves?  How can we integrate our shadow- often wily, usually mysterious, sometimes fiercely tenacious? Can we embrace all of ourselves? What does it take to move freely and creatively in our lives?

This process is symphonic – having several movements infused with reoccurring themes. To begin we must notice when and to what we have strong reactions.  Both strong positive and negative reactions hold clues.  While unable to look into the depths of our own shadow, we often see it reflected outside of ourselves, in others.

When our response to others is strong, we have an opportunity to investigate what about them “triggers” us.  Whether our response is positive or negative, it is useful to
extrapolate the qualities that we notice when we are galvanized by another..

Listing these, checking them out carefully and then using our list to find these qualities in ourselves is a useful first step in shedding some light on our shadowy dance partner.

In coaching we often speak of the need to be open and curious. Curiosity allows engagement, dynamic interest, movement towards lightheartedness. .Joy.discovery, openness -an awake state – exuberance. and  Innocence are present in curiosity. We are inherently experimental and playful as infants – ready to “taste” the world.  Curiosity brings forward our potential which transforms into “hope”. It is a movement towards freedom.

Our assumption, as coaches,  is that we are curious when we ask questions.  On one level this is true, yet curiosity is a much deeper inclination and often illuminates some part of our shadow.

What are we not curious about? What questions will we refrain from asking? And beyond the asking of questions, where does curiosity lead us? Can we feel the exhilaration of it arising or is the questioning mechanical, stilted?  How willing are we try new practices with clients? Or devise fresh self-observations? Do we do our own inquiry? How often will we continue to read something that at first doesn’t appeal to us?  Are we willing to attend a training in an area that doesn’t light us up?

When we have blind spots around our curiosity, there are subjects we avoid entering into fully – for ourselves and with clients. Sometimes this happens because “we already know” – that is we make assumptions from a very limited sampling or insufficient evidence.  Or, we touch into a topic that brings up strong somatic resistance and so we deal with it superficially –  blind to the fact  that we are shutting down an  important vein of inquiry.

The shadow side of curiosity can show up around issues of money, abuse, pleasure, relationships, rage, eating habits, child rearing, power or any of life’s intricate events. For each of us, it develops out of our own unique experience.  Yet, to fully serve our clients, we need to bring light to bear on the very dark side of our limited curiosity.

The issue is further complicated by how we hold curiosity. Is it solely a cognitive experience, a sort of intellectual inquisitiveness?  For many of us acculturated into intellectual curiosity, it remains at that level. We disown sensual curiosity, not willing to engage with textures, scents, sensations or tastes, perhaps.

When we get really curious about the emotional responses that arise in us, when we are listening deeply, or when  we develop enough curiosity for a nuanced understanding of how we are reacting to our client’s narrative, we are experiencing emotional curiosity. Can we hold strong emotions – our own and that of others? Or do we avoid certain emotions, shutting down the curiosity of our hearts? When we become skillful in staying curious about our feelings, we serve both the client and ourselves.

(to be continued)