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What Leadership Shadow do you cast?

“A leader doesn’t just get the message across; They are the message.” 

Business culture lies at the heart of many merger clashes, strategy failures, and change initiatives, too many Directors and senior managers approach organisational culture as they might the weather: everyone talks about it but with the assumption that nothing can be done about it.

Lack of collaboration is only one cultural traits impacted by the shadow of the leaders. You could substitute many things, including: blaming, stress, lack of coaching, resistance to change, hectic, hierarchical, risk-averse, and so on.

The values, habits, and biases of the founders and dominant leaders leave an imprint on organisations.

Today, we can see this in the smallest and largest businesses. It is clearly visible in the businesses I visit on a daily basis. There are often “ghosts” of past leaders evident too.

To better understand that, just ask about the values and preferences of dominant founders of a company or early leaders who left their mark. Chances are you can still see at least remnants that have made an impact many years later. A good example is Walt Disney and Disney theme parks.


There is no doubt that the most important shadows come from teams at the top; specifically, the MD’s team and the teams of those who report to the MD. Therefore, if you want to shape any element of your culture, you and your senior teams need to model the desired behaviour.


The shadow phenomenon

The shadow phenomenon exists to greater or lesser degrees for anyone who is a leader of any group, including a parent in a family. That is because people tend to take on the characteristics of those who have some power or influence over them.

One of the most intimate and far-reaching examples of this shadow concept happens when parents, perhaps aware of their own imperfections, exhort their children to “Do as I say, not as I do.” Unfortunately, children generally tune out that message and mimic the behaviours they see. The message of any parent, or business leader, will be drowned out if the actions conflict with the words.

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

The role of the leader, at work and at home, requires modelling the desired behaviour and letting others see the desired values in action. To become effective leaders, we must become aware of our shadows and then learn to have our actions match our message.

A former CEO of a quoted company felt so strongly about the importance of consistency between actions and words, he once said: “I would submit to you that it is unnatural for you to come in late and for your people to come in early. I think it is unnatural for you to be dishonest and your people to be honest. I think it is unnatural for you to not handle your finances well and then to expect your people to handle theirs well. In all these simple things, I think you have to set the standard.”

The head of an organisation or a team casts a shadow that influences the employees in that group. The shadow may be weak or powerful, yet it always exists. It is a reflection of everything the leader does and says.

All too often, leaders in an organisation approve training programs dealing with issues such as leadership development or culture shaping but don’t attend them as participants or visibly work on the concepts themselves. More often than not, as a result, these programs are unsuccessful. That is why it is critical that any major change initiative, such as culture shaping, start at the top.

Cultural implications

One of the most common complaints throughout organizations is that the senior team is not “walking the talk.” There is a lack of integrity. This can take various forms:-

  • The organisation is asking people to be more open to change, yet the top leaders do not exhibit changed behaviours.
  • Increased teamwork and cross-organisational collaboration is preached, yet the senior team does not collaborate across divisional lines.
  • The organisation is seen cutting back on expenses, yet the senior team doesn’t change any of its special perks.
  • People are asked to be accountable for results, while the senior team members continue to subtly blame one another for lack of results.

Without doubt, the fastest way to create a positive self-fulfilling prophecy about cultural change is to have the top leaders individually and collectively shift their own behaviours. They don’t have to be perfect; they just have to deal themselves into the same game they are asking others to play.

Action steps

Some useful questions to consider about the shadow concept are:

  • What shadow is the senior team(s) in your organisation casting? What’s the good news? And the bad news?
  • What behaviours would you like to see change in the group you lead or influence at work? Once identified, how do you have to show up differently to cast the needed shadow?
  • If you have children or younger people you influence in your personal life, what are they learning and picking up on based on your behaviours? What are your positive behaviours, and what do you need to watch out for? What shadow do you want to cast?