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Me and My Shadow

I had an interesting experience recently that is still causing me to think and reflect. A month ago, I was in Virginia for a seminar. I arrived every morning by train and walked to the building where the seminar was held. One morning the sun was directly behind me as I walked up the hill toward the building. As I walked, I saw a woman who I recognized from the seminar and increased my pace to catch up with her to say hello. I didn’t know she was talking on her cell phone and, when I got near her, I startled her and she reacted.

It was then that I realized that my long shadow, created by the sun behind me, had scared her. I apologized and said, “I’m sorry. I’m really harmless.”

Later in the seminar room, she explained that she had been mugged one time and still reacts in fear when approached surprised in public.

I am still reflecting on the fact that my shadow scared her. It has made me wonder how many other times my “shadow” has alarmed people and I wasn’t even aware.

You see, everyone has a shadow. It is a part of my personality of which I may not be aware. I may be aware of it, but I don’t like to acknowledge that it is a part of me. At times, I can project my shadow onto others. For instance, I may be critical but refuse to admit that I am, or may only be aware of it at a subconscious level. When I meet a critical person, I project my critical nature onto them. Usually I don’t “like” that person or their critical nature, but I are unaware (or unwilling to admit) that I actually don’t like that critical spirit in me.

My shadow can be like it was with that woman on my way to the seminar. She was aware of my shadow and I wasn’t. What’s more, she reacted to my shadow based on her previous experience. Even though I did nothing and had no malicious intent, she was still frightened.

A few years ago, I read a book by Jay Conger entitled Spirit at Work (it is now out of print.) I remember it well because of what he wrote about the shadow that he believes all leaders have or at least grapple with, and of which they may not even be aware. I believe that these shadows operate both in business and in the church. What’s more, I think I have these shadowy sides as well as a a few others. While it’s a long quote, I would like to share some of Conger’s thoughts with you, for they have been with me ever since that encounter on the way to the seminar:

A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project on other people his or her shadow, or his or her light. A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to create the conditions under which other people must live and move and have their being, conditions that can either be as illuminating as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A leader must take responsibility for what’s going on inside his or her own self, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.

The shadow lives of leaders are inevitably projected onto institutions and society. If they are to create less shadow and more light, leaders need to ride certain monsters all the way down [to examine their inner life and motivations.] I have five of them as a sampler, and a few thoughts on how the inner journey might transform our leadership at these five points.

1. One of the biggest shadows inside a lot of leaders is deep insecurity about their own identity, their own worth. That insecurity is hard to see in extroverted people. But the extroversion is often precisely because they are insecure about who they are and are trying to proves themselves in the external world rather than wrestling with their inner identity. Everywhere I look I see institutions depriving large groups of people of their identify so that a few people can enhance theirs

2. The second shadow of leadership is inside a lot of us is the perception that the universe is essentially hostile to human interests and that life is fundamentally a battleground. Have you ever noticed how often people use “battle” images as they go about the work of leadership? We talk about “do or die” tactics and strategy, about using our big guns, about allies and enemies, about wins and losses. The imagery suggests that if we fail to be fiercely competitive, we will lose, because the basic structure of the universe is a vast combat. The tragedy of that inner shadow, that unexamined fear of failing, is that it helps create situations where people actually have to live that way.

3. The third shadow in leaders I call “functional atheism” – the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me. It is the unconscious, unexamined conviction within us that if anything decent is going to happen here, I am the one who needs to make it happen. Functional atheism leads to dysfunctional behavior on every level of our lives: workaholism, burnout, stressed and strained and broken relationships, unhealthy priorities. It is the reason the average group can tolerate only fifteen seconds of silence; people believe that if they are not making noise, nothing is happening!

4. The fourth shadow among leaders is fear. There are many kinds of fear, but I am thinking especially of our fear of the natural chaos of life. Many leaders have a deep devotion to eliminating all remnants of chaos from the world. They want to order and organize things so thoroughly that the nasty stuff will never bubble up around us—such nasty stuff as dissent, innovation, challenge, change. In an organization, this particular shadow gets projected outward as rigidity of rules and procedures. It creates corporate cultures that are imprisoning rather than empowering.

5. The final example of the shadows that leaders can project on others involves the denial of death. We live in a culture that simply does not want to talk about things dying. Leaders everywhere demand that they themselves, and the people who work for them, artificially maintain things that are no longer alive, maybe never have been. Projects and programs that should have laid down ten years ago are still on life-support system.

The insight I want to draw from spiritual traditions may be best summarized in a word from depth psychology: projection. We share responsibility for creating the external world by projecting either a spirit of light or s spirit of shadow on that which is other than us. We project either a spirit of hope or a spirit of despair, either an inner confidence in wholeness and integration or an inner terror about life being diseased and ultimately terminal. We have a choice about what we are to project, and in that choice we help create the world that is. Consciousness precedes being, and consciousness can help deform, or reform, our world (abridged from pages 24-37).

Are you willing to face the fact that you may have shadow sides? More importantly, are you willing to bring them to the light, examine them and their root causes, so that they don’t drive your leadership decisions? I hope you are. I have been working to examine my shadows so that they don’t go before me to startle people, even when that isn’t my intent.

Feel free to write your comment so this entry on the site where it is posted.


Elizabeth Brennan

Hey John!

Most interesting musings in this article about shadow and leadership. I've recently finished 6 months of Chaplain Internship (aka CPE=Clinical Pastoral Education) and one of the main focuses of that training is to look inside and find out what is lurking in those shadows -- and what about "me" am I reacting to, and/or projecting on, the person I'm ministering to.

I've spent a bit of time since then looking at the Jungian idea of "shadow" -- that part of self that was "socialized" out (from childhood) as unacceptable, but which must be acknowledged and integrated to begin to become healthy.

I've come to realize that my reactions to people and situations are really all about me -- they generally say much more about me and who I am than about the other person.

I've also noticed that "shadow" and projection of same seems to be the base of gossip.

So... shadow is an issue for the sheep as well as the shepherd.

Good to be in touch again!

BTW -- I'm just one research paper away from the "red ring"!

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