By Pratap Nambiar for The Sunday Times
Jungian theories of the personality and its shadow shed light on leaders’ misbehaviour – which can lead organisations or entire countries astray.
Well before noted psychologist Carl Jung developed the concept of the personal shadow, author Robert Louis Stevenson had captured the imagination of millions – and continues to do so – with the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
All of us, and leaders in particular, are prone to what Jung referred to: “That which we do not bring to our consciousness appears in our lives as fate.”
UNDERSTANDING THE SHADOW
Jungian psychology refers to the shadow as the part of our personality and associated undesired behaviours that, over the period of our life, we relegate to our unconscious.
The personal shadow develops from childhood as we learn and identify with ideal personality characteristics which are reinforced in our environments. In tandem, we bury in the shadow those undesired qualities that do not get the approval of our environment or do not fit our self-image. The ego and the shadow then develop together, creating each other out of the same life experience.
Negative emotions and behaviours – rage, envy, shame, resentment, lying, lust, greed and other illegal or criminal tendencies – lie concealed just beneath the surface, masked by our more proper selves.
All these characteristics are continuously put into a sack which we carry over our shoulders. They tend to remain unexplored territory – until they suddenly escape the sack and appear indiscriminately in most inconvenient and inappropriate circumstances.
All the feelings and capacities that are rejected by our ego self and exiled into the shadow contribute to the hidden power of the dark side of human nature.
Jungian analyst James Hillman says: “The unconscious cannot be conscious; the moon has its dark side, the sun goes down and cannot shine everywhere at once. Attention and focus require some things to be out of the field of vision, to remain in the dark. One cannot look both ways.”
That is why, according to psychologist Connie Zweig, we see the shadow mostly indirectly, in the distasteful traits and actions of other people, outside where it is safer to observe it.
When we react intensely to a quality in an individual or group and we experience great loathing or admiration, this may be our shadow showing. We project by attributing this quality to the other person in an unconscious effort to banish it from ourselves, to keep ourselves from seeing it within.
It is what makes fans of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal hate the likes of Nick Kyrgios and even Novak Djokovic, whose behaviours negate their obvious tennis talent and make them unlikable to some.
Ignoring our shadow is a dangerous game, as it has the ability to derail us in the most unexpected ways.
Towards the end of last year, I wrote an article in The Straits Times about the need for leaders to be self-aware. Knowing one’s shadow is the starting point of establishing deep self-awareness
Developing ourselves often requires us to let go of the very things we have worked hardest to achieve in order to make room for our shadow. We have to release our cherished image of ourselves – or how we want to be seen by others – in order to develop a greater wholeness, maturity and wisdom on the other side.
Not long ago, Australian cricket team captain Steve Smith and his vice-captain David Warner were severely punished for encouraging one of their junior team members to openly cheat by tampering with the ball on the field of play. They are still doing time as they have been banned from playing.
It was a moment of gross indiscretion, a veritable brain fade where, in the heat of battle and obsessed with the desire to win, they allowed their dark side to take control of their persona and do something that later made them ask: “What were we thinking?”
Carlos Ghosn, the former chief executive of Renault-Nissan, has fallen from grace, awaiting trial over alleged tax fraud. Tesla CEO Elon Musk ran afoul of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission for his tweet about taking his listed company private. What was he thinking?
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has spent so much time in denial about his company’s inability to do the right thing – once again being exposed by videos of the recent New Zealand massacre that was live-streamed on Facebook.
As a coach to CEOs, I often find shadows at work that have been ignored for too long and have resulted in derailing behaviours that need serious transformation.
Most often I see the shadow in the workplace when leaders put aside their personal needs for leisure, intimacy and family, becoming round-the-clock achievement machines.
Organisations that are led by people who deny the need for adequate investment in human resource development create a culture of blame and distrust. I also witness great anxiety that has come with success. Will it last? How can I get even more success? Do I deserve it? What if I lose my mojo? My job?
PERSONAL SHADOW, ORGANISATION’S FAILURE
When leaders stop learning, hubris sets in. I see this in the way they fail to manage time, the quality of their interpersonal interactions, and also in the quality of choices they make.
Leaders who seal themselves off by collecting “yes men” and killing the messengers of bad news; the insecure ones who are always seeking credit for themselves; those who are blinded by arrogance and endow themselves with special gifts – Jose Mourinho, the recently sacked manager of Manchester United, titled himself the “Special One” – or the self-righteous who can
do no wrong and are always critical of all others: These are all examples of the shadow in action.
The swollen ego screens the shadow, which can pull us down by its dark and stealthy rage. The ego is only prancing because the shadow is in control.
No other part of our personality reveals our basic temperament, our fundamental way of working, more than our dark side – the part of ourselves which illogically unfolds at its own time and which has its own requirements.
These are the uncontrollable impulses, the habits we simply cannot break; the unacceptable, contradictory tendencies, moving us in the opposite direction from which we intended to go.
Conscious and unconscious do not make a whole when one of them is suppressed and injured by the other. It is necessary that both parts be fully and equally aligned for the persona to be truly whole and the full potential of the leader harnessed for performance.
When we refuse to face our shadow, or try to fight it with our willpower, we merely relegate this energy to the unconscious. From there it exerts its power in a negative, compulsive, projected form.
This results in the leader living as an isolated and deluded state of being, cut off from reality, usually playing the blame game, being critical of others, defensive and the victim of circumstance.
Working with a coach then becomes essential to help one become fully self-aware, accepting the blind spots and integrating the shadow so that the unconscious mind does not trigger the self-limiting behaviours that can do serious damage and derail performance.
As individuals, the leader and the shadow can have a cascading effect and impact the persona of the collective consciousness of an organisation or a country.
I have seen leaders who are so significantly impacted by their shadows that they have influenced the culture of their organisation to create dysfunctional behaviour that results in all leaders performing two jobs – one that their title suggests, and the other in almost full-time pursuit of safety and protectionism, ensuring that they stay safe and do not become adversely affected by loss of status, power or competitive disadvantage in relation to their peers.
Entire organisations can become inward-looking and withdrawn, growing suspicious of confident, expressive, open and transparent individuals and viewing them with disdain. It is what creates the tall poppy syndrome, where the tallest poppy that dares to raise its head above the common others is the first to get its head cut off.
If you look at the story of India and Pakistan, we can see that India represents Pakistan’s shadow and vice versa. The recent incidents in which an entire country has resorted to warmongering -driven by the inadequacy of its leaders, whose shadow of arrogance, insecurity and fear has asserted itself – are classic examples of the shadow taking charge. They have conveniently forgotten the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi’s quote: “An eye for an eye makes everybody blind.”
An evolved leader who has learnt to work with his shadow would have taken the high road, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did when he told US leader Ronald Reagan that he was depriving him of an enemy. This is what brought an end to the Cold War.
Singapore too represents Malaysia’s shadow. Much of what we as a people demonstrate as we make progress irks our brothers and sisters across the border, as they find our behaviours unacceptable – it is actually what they dislike about themselves and have buried deep into their unconscious. When they see us exhibiting those behaviours, their shadow gets triggered and that is not a pleasant experience. And of course we can clearly see shadows at work when the president of one country is obsessed with building a wall along the borders with his neighbouring country!
WORKING WITH THE SHADOW
Professor of organisation development and consulting Erik de Haan says the moment a leader needs to learn or change himself or herself is the moment that he or she needs to revert to the discarded shadow.
This can happen through getting feedback from colleagues, or by working with a coach or mentor, to help use the underdeveloped talents that have been ignored for some time.
Leadership effectiveness is all about fulfilling the potential of the team. The leader’s intense attention to self-interest driven by the ego self, without integrating the shadow, can create a toxic organisation with sub-optimal performance.
Leaders tend to invest a lot of time in recognising the undesirable dimensions of themselves that they see in others. To counter the elements of the shadow, they need to examine what traits, characteristics and attitudes they dislike in other people and how strongly they dislike them.
Some of Singapore’s leaders have been accused of intellectually elitist behaviour because mediocrity is their shadow. As a coach, I get my clients to list all the qualities they do not like in other people. When the list is complete – it is usually long – I get them to extract those specific qualities that they hate, loathe and despise. This final short list will form a fairly accurate picture
of their personal shadow.
In my own case, I loathed people who were arrogant. When I examined my shadow, I realised that I too practised arrogance. I hated people who were obsessed about getting everything just perfect and then realised this was the very characteristic of mine that I hated and buried deep inside my unconscious.
Any time our response to another person involves excessive emotion or overreaction, we can be sure that something unconscious has been prodded and is being activated. What we decry in the enemy may be nothing less than a shadow projection of our own darkness.
What leaders do not integrate internally will continue to manifest externally in their lives. The more they conceal their unacceptable parts and continue posturing to hide them, the less they will be able to grow and flourish.
When, as a coach, I can help make the shadow more conscious and visible, my clients can see more clearly who they are being – instead of living in their delusion of who they assume they are or wish they were. It is a process of unmasking that can be quite uncomfortable, but is necessary for leaders to see themselves in the mirror and lead from a whole state of being, completely
sensitive to their true selves, warts and all.
Narrative Coach author David Drake uses the metaphor of hats to explain the process of integrating the shadow. Everyone in theory has the same array of hats from which to choose, each representing an aspect of himself. However, we tend to over-identify with some hats which we wear over and over again, keeping the other hats in the shadow.
I have found that clients resist putting on the other hats because they are afraid of what might happen or who they would become. That is why, as a coach, I create a safe place for them to experiment and try out the new hats, the less used parts of themselves, and gradually help them to wear it in public. This way they do not get derailed by their shadows which they integrate into
themselves to become whole as a result.
In the words of psychotherapist and writer Kathleen Brehony: “It takes enormous energy to maintain aspects of ourselves in the shadow. We must be constantly on guard, making certain that nothing sneaks out, making sure no one can see our dark side. If we could free our psychic energy from the role of keeping watch, imagine the energy we would be able to spend on real
intimacy, creativity, heartfelt compassion and love.”
We can stop doing two jobs at the same time.
This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on March 31, 2019.