President’s Blog December 9, 2019 – The Leader’s Shadow

Hello Members – December time, as the evenings reach their darkest hour and the year draws to a close, can be an exceptionally busy time for our member firms right across every sector of business.  Clients’ demands, deadlines to meet, targets to be achieved, year-end accounts, the list seemingly endless.  And as if that wasn’t enough, there is also the important matter of performance reviews.  The evaluation of our staff and our teams and how they performed over the course of the year.  But, do we even stop to consider our own performance, the performance of the leader, and how we as leaders guided our staff and our businesses this year.

I have for some time been fascinated with the concept of the Leader’s Shadow.  In 2011, I was fortunate to have been one of 24 business leaders selected to participate in the Enterprise Ireland Leadership for Growth Programme.  This year-long programme was taught by Duke University and to give some context to the exceptional level of the investment in the programme, the learning included week-long modules in Abu Dhabi, London and the North of Scotland.  Over the year, I was exposed to teaching from international experts of the highest calibre, world leaders in their field.  It was during that time I was introduced to the concept of the Leader’s Shadow.  The learning that I gained, I carry with me every day of my working life in how I try to interact with our staff, our teams and our clients.  So, as 2019 closes in, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on the Leader’s Shadow and in so doing, hope that it may be of some help to you and may trigger some important critical reflective thinking.  If it helps even one person change for the better how they interact with others, then the time writing this piece will be time well spent.

The idea of the leader’s shadow is a universal metaphor that can be traced back to ancient times in myths and folklore from ancient Egypt and Greece.  In arts, literature and on stage, the concept of the shadow has been widely explored and worked.   There is a classical story of the Faustian pact which involves the selling of one’s shadow as a prelude to selling one’s soul to the devil.  In “Peter Schlemihl’s Miraculous Story”, the German poet Adelbert von Chamisso writing in 1814 tells the famous story about Peter who sells his shadow for a sack of gold.  The sack of gold is bottomless but ultimately of little value to Peter as he struggles with the deep shame he feels at having no shadow.  It is not until Peter gives up the sack of gold that he finds peace of mind.  The story concludes that in order to live with others, one must learn to honour first one’s shadow and then one’s gold.

Being a leader in business inevitably creates a divide between the leader and his or her employees or teams, between the leader’s approach and the approach of others to what is best for the organisation.  In shining their light to guide the organisation forward, the leader can obscure the less desirable aspects of their character and of what they are doing. These aspects can be encapsulated within the leader’s shadow.

It is therefore essential that we as leaders are aware, not only of the light that we shine but much more importantly, of the shadow that we cast.  For a business leader to be continuously at their best, the leader must be prepared to be continuously in touch with and to balance their leadership shadow.  Leadership is relational, it is relational between people.  It is a position of honour that brings with it great responsibility.  For that reason, we as leaders need to be conscious of the impact that we have with all our teams as we interact with them throughout the working day, every working day, every week of the year, each and every year.  We must always be mindful of our conduct, our communication, our contact, our appearance, of the shadow that we are casting.  The unhelpful, the untimely, the unnecessary remark, the lasting demotivating negative impact our interaction can leave on a member of the team when we walk away from them.  Negativity that cannot easily be righted as we may not have the opportunity to interact with the person again for days, sometimes weeks.  What impact is that negativity having on others witnessing the interaction.  What impact is it having a productivity, on the business itself.  Was this the shadow we wanted to cast.  Was this what we wanted to leave behind.  Did we even recognise the shadow we were casting.  Did we even stop for one moment to reflect on ourselves.   These are critical questions for us as leaders in business.

As another year draws to a close, and as we conduct the performance reviews of our staff and of our teams, is it perhaps timely to critically review our own performance as leaders over the year.  To critically assess how we interacted with our staff.  To critically assess our leadership.  To critically assess how we are honouring our shadow and how that shadow is being cast.

Until next time.

Life is for Living – #Life is Sligo.

Conor McCarthy

President Sligo Chamber