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Leaders, Here’s One Powerful Way to Face Your Shadow

Most leaders search out books on leadership to discover new tools, ideas, or skills. We are charged with the task of knowing what to do next, knowing why it is important, and then bringing the necessary resources to bear to make it happen. Yet the first and most difficult task we face as leaders is to lead ourselves. Why? Because it requires confronting parts of who we are that we prefer to neglect, forget, or deny. Here is how author and educator Parker Palmer describes this experience:

Everything in us cries out against it. That is why we externalize everything — it is far easier to deal with the exterior world. It is easier to spend your life manipulating an institution than dealing with your own soul. We make institutions sound complicated and hard and rigorous, but they are simplicity itself compared with our inner labyrinths.

What Is the Shadow?
Your shadow is the accumulation of untamed emotions, less-than pure motives and thoughts that, while largely unconscious, strongly influence and shape your behaviors. It is the damaged but mostly hidden version of who you are.

Aspects of the shadow may be sinful, but they may also simply be weaknesses or wounds. This means that the shadow is not simply another word for sin. If that makes you think the shadow is hard to pin down, you’re right.

So how does the shadow reveal itself in leadership? Here are a few examples:

• Many of us have gifts in speaking and in mobilizing people. That is good. The shadow side of these gifts may be an insatiable need for affirmation. Even public sharing of repentance and failure may be motivated by an unconscious hunger for approval. It is also not uncommon for those of us with gifts of public speaking to use them to distance ourselves from close relationships.

• We value excellence. That is good. The shadow side emerges when the pursuit of excellence crosses into perfectionism that makes no allowances for mistakes. Our perfectionism becomes one way we silence our own inner voices of shame.

• We are zealous for God’s truth and right doctrine. That is good. The shadow emerges when our zeal prevents us from loving those who disagree with us. It is driven by our own insecurities and fears about feeling competent and “right.”

• We want to see the church maximize its potential for Christ. That is good. However, the shadow takes over when we become so preoccupied with achieving objectives that we are unwilling or unable to listen to others and create an unsustainable pace for those serving with us. The shadow motivation might be a desperate need to receive praise from others for our work.

A Pathway for Facing Your Shadow
Our concern here is with more than just managing and minimizing negative impact. What we are after is long-term inner transformation into the image of Christ for the sake of the world. If that’s a challenge you’re prepared to undertake, then I trust that, while you may still feel somewhat cautious, you are ready to take one or more next steps.

Step 1: Tame Your Feelings by Naming Your Feelings

I spent the first seventeen years of my Christian life denying my feelings, especially the more difficult emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. I fell into a superspiritual, unbiblical theology that considered such emotions sinful. I failed to recognize all the biblical examples that clearly demonstrated otherwise.

When I began the journey of emotionally healthy spirituality in 1996, I wrote in a journal almost every day as part of my prayer time. This proved to be a foundational discipline for me because it allowed me to exercise my long dormant “feeling” muscles. While initially it was difficult, with consistent practice, identifying and naming my emotions became as natural as breathing.

After identifying my feelings, I made it a habit to reflect on why I might be experiencing each emotion. For example, “Why might I be angry when I think about meeting that person from our church? Is it her apparent forcefulness? Is it that I am afraid I will give in to pressure and make an unwise decision I will later regret?” Again, I wrote my responses in a journal. Once I could name my feelings and identify their source, I could then take appropriate action, such as, graciously saying no to an invitation, asking difficult questions, or waiting before making a final decision.

—by Peter Scazzero, adapted from The Emotionally Healthy Leader. In the book you will find three more practical pathways to facing your shadow, plus further steps to connecting your spiritual growth to core leadership tasks.

How to Use This Book

Are you doing your best work as a leader yet not making an impact? Do you feel stuck, powerless to change your environment? Do you feel too overwhelmed to enjoy life, unable to sort out the demands on your time? We recommend you check out The Emotionally Healthy Leader. It offers a whole new way of viewing yourself as a leader, and practical guidance for a radically new way of leading.