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Exploring Your Shadow Side: Navigating Dangerous Territories in Leadership

Exploring Your Shadow Side: Navigating Dangerous Territories in Leadership
Photo: Unsplash.com

By: Marcy Paulson

Everyone has aspects of themselves they would prefer not to examine too closely. Most people push these critical, childish, judgmental, and bitter thoughts to the shadowy corners of their consciousness, but doing so allows fear and shame to accumulate like the thick layers of dust in a vacant room.

“We all have our dark side,” says Joe Judge, co-author of one of 2023’s best leadership books, “Leadership is Overcoming the Natural: 52 Maxims to Move Beyond Instinct”. “It’s never fun to dwell on character flaws, but if left unaddressed, they present barriers that prevent us from reaching our full potential. Leaders who rise to the challenge reap enormous rewards.”

Effective leaders learn to identify the shadow side 

When leaders ignore their dark side, it becomes a blind spot. They learn to overlook their flaws, but that does not mean others fail to see them.

“Everyone has witnessed the shadow side, whether in themselves or someone else,” observes Judge. “What makes your shadow side so deadly is its capacity for unrestrained negativity. You often unleash it in what you feel is righteous wrath, believing your angry words or criticisms are wholly justified. Your shadow side tends to rear its ugly head at the worst possible moment, ruining your chances of success.”

Dr. Mike Merrill, Judge’s co-author of “Leadership Is Overcoming the Natural,” completed his medical residency in Buffalo, New York. Just a few short years ago, he realized that lacking a degree from Harvard or UCLA was nagging at the dark corners of his insecurity with negative results. 

“Despite being board-qualified in internal medicine, I finally saw my self-doubt for what it was,” Dr. Merill recalls. “Those feelings of inadequacy caused me to judge other doctors’ work with a critical eye.”

At first, the dark side feels massive and terrifying to confront. “Our dark side has goals that do not align with our leadership objectives, yet it’s just as intelligent as we are,” remarks Judge. “To gain the upper hand, we must become intensely aware of our emotions, track their ebb and flow, and understand exactly what they signify.”

The noted psychologist Carl Jung asserted that people must explore the depth of their shadow side, and believed tracing darker thoughts and emotions to their root was the only way to dispel the darkness and usher in the light. Anger, for instance, is an emotion typically rooted in a breach of values or unresolved hurt. 

“If we are self-aware enough to recognize when we’re getting angry, we can ask ourselves questions to diffuse the situation and shed light on those hidden issues,” Judge explains. “If fear is the root cause of our anger, then we must dig deeper to determine what exactly it is that is threatening us. If we become angry when people challenge our opinions, we must examine what worries us about being proved wrong.”

Why a leader’s shadow side prevents growth

According to author Richard Rohr, a person’s life includes two distinct phases. During the ego stage, people venture beyond their familiar surroundings and broaden their horizons by moving into uncharted territory, pushing their boundaries, and discovering new possibilities.

“At this critical stage, our shadow side works the hardest to hold us back,” notes Judge. “It instills a sense of dread, leading us to shun difficult situations and miss opportunities. As an aspiring leader, you must not give up, no matter how badly you fail. Concrete action is your path to personal growth.”

When people press forward through the first stage, they enter the “soul” stage, which is the time when people develop meaning and purpose by focusing on the people around them. During this stage, they learn to help, inspire, and challenge others to grow and become more than they are.

Do something concrete to spur growth and keep the shadow side at bay

At the age of 32, Judge completed his first marathon. Before that, he always allowed a ready excuse to stand in his way. When he finally confronted his hidden justifications and stopped avoiding the challenge, everything suddenly seemed doable.

“Opportunities present themselves when we grow and face new challenges,” Judge explains. “When I took on that marathon, I also took on my lack of self-control, organization, and persistence. After that, I was able to continue growing. Our constraints ensnare us until we take action to free ourselves from them.”

Despite their best efforts, people will always struggle to master their dark side because the shadow side is dynamic and ever-evolving. When leaders grow, the shadow shifts. When leaders believe they have fully conquered their dark side, they accept an illusion that prevents them from seeing its new tricks and hiding places.

Being a leader entails keeping a watchful eye on everything that is going on around you,” Judge concludes. “In this case, it means constantly turning that eye inward on your hidden emotions and motivations. Identify your shadow side and the negative ways it affects you, and then take concrete action to control your shadow self and grow.”

Published by: Martin De Juan

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