When I was a kid, I loved playing with my shadow. With my back to the sun, I casted my shadow over everything, fascinated by the way it grew and diminished according to the placement of the sun.
As a teenager, I walked in others’ shadows to learn the ropes, to understand the best paths to walk and to easily fit in. By adulthood, I accepted that to grow I had to forge my own path, take what I learnt in the safety of the shadows and convert it to my truth as I exposed myself to the sun.
Larry Senn, in his 1970 doctoral thesis popularised the idea of “shadow of a leader.” His research showed that organisations often become shadows of their leaders.
People want to emulate leaders even without being bullied or coerced (to do so). Staff mimic the language, the style and the behaviour of the leaders as they try to understand the culture, to fit in, to negotiate and manoeuvre their way through the organisation, and to be promoted.
Whether intentional or not, leaders set the culture of the organisation by their expressions of personal likes or dislikes, their personal traits and characteristics and their behaviour.
They stand with their backs to the sun casting long shadows over the organisation. No doubt that Senn was onto something but should we as leaders some 47 years later, be casting shadows in our organisations?
We want our teams to have the same core values and to be aligned to organisational vision, but does this translate to staff being “a chip off the old block?”
Yes we want the stability that homogeneity brings, but how does that serve us in times of change?
We are all human, therefore by design we have flaws. Consequently, as leaders there are times when we are flawed in our thoughts, words and deeds. What if the shadows we cast include our flaws? What if as leaders we project shadows that conjure shadow puppets (changing fingers and hands to wonderful sights) – that are miles from the truth?
When I determined how I wanted to lead and decided the reasons why I wanted to lead I was no longer interested in having mini-mes on my team. While team members and I needed to be on the same page with respect to core values, vision and how we wanted to work, it was important that each team member bring who (s)he was to the workplace. In this way, we created a team of diverse opinions and skills, we challenged each other, we provided different opinions and thoughts and in this way we each grew.
I often held up a mirror to myself to see what I needed to change. I also held that mirror up for team members so that they could see themselves and autocorrect as they needed to. At times, I had to hold the mirror up for the team and determine what qualities were missing in the team, then decide to adopt and encourage others to adopt the relevant behaviour.
Leaders can consider being a mirror in and for the organisations in which we work. We can model the organisational culture that we want, even when it bucks the prevalent culture. We can reflect another way of working that invites meaningful conflict which may be suppressed when all staff sing off the same hymn sheet. We can promote the growth and development of individuals so that they display their full intelligence. We can create environments for risk taking that invite creativity. We can harness the variety and diversity that team members bring to spur our organisations forward.
To look in the mirror, we have to step out of the shadows, become aware, take responsibility and determine with team members what actions need to be taken to achieve our agreed destination.
Whose shadow are you walking in? What shadows are you casting on your team?
Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win. She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.