social movements + innovation lab


What Feeds the Shadow Side of Your Leadership?

“I liked myself more and disappointed myself less.” These words from my post-sabbatical reflections have been haunting me. I came back from my sabbatical with a commitment to not repeat the behaviors that made me need a sabbatical to recover, and with a promise to myself to do things differently. So, I’ve been asking myself: What had I been doing, or what was it about my leadership role that had me liking myself less and disappointing myself more?

I used to think that there were things as a leader that I was good at and other things that I was just plain bad at. For a long time I worked diligently to improve myself as a leader. This often meant learning new skills, developing more self and social awareness and self-management, and just maturing into a kinder, more generous human being. But at some point, this deficit-based model became wearing and demoralizing. There was always something that I was fucking up, after all there’s nothing like a leadership role to give you constant feedback about all your failures and missteps.

I started working with an executive coach who had me do an assessment test at the beginning of our time together.  This test measured the gap between my “natural” style of leadership and the style of leadership that my position required. She measured that distance as my stress load. This blew my mind – it meant that my stress wasn’t just a question of work-life balance or managing my time better, but rather something external to me. I stopped berating myself for not handling the stress better and started instead to take a strength-based approach. I started focusing more on building a team around me with complementary skills and aptitudes. That helped with some of the stress for a while.

But my struggles with leadership continued, in ways that often felt like the job was grinding me down to a nub. Last year, at the first retreat of my Rockwood yearlong Leading from the Inside Out fellowship, I learned about the shadow side of my leadership. Apparently all of us have a shadow side. It is essentially how we show up as leaders when we are stressed, anxious, scared, uncertain, under pressure or feeling urgent. It is when we revert to our old lizard brains and bad habits, rather then our best, most delighted selves. At the retreat we shared our darkest, most shameful secrets about our shadow selves and described the circumstances that made them emerge. What a relief to know that having a shadow side didn’t make me a bad leader, and that there were simple things that I could do, like breathing or stepping away, that could shrink and minimize her.  I like my shadow side less than my best self, and I am disappointed when I’m in that primitive, fight or flight mode.

Now returning from my sabbatical, my challenge is to develop more awareness of when my shadow side emerges. I know there is something about my early training that often has me defaulting to survival mode and assuming I must make sacrifices in service of the work. I’m trying to listen to my heart more and pay attention to when the work energizes, rather than depletes me. If survival and sacrifice feed my shadow side, then I want to operate out of a place of joy and inspiration. This isn’t always easy – the pull of old habits and unconscious assumptions is pretty powerful, but at least now I know what my shadow side feels like, how to recognize it, and what to do when it appears in the room.

If this is what feeds my shadow side, I’m curious, what feeds yours?