• Friday, March 01, 2024
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Dark side of leadership: What every leader should know about their shadow self

Dark side of leadership: What every leader should know about their shadow self

Leadership is often associated with positivity, charisma, and success. However, as much as we like to romanticize the idea of leadership, there is a dark side that is often overlooked. This dark side is the shadow self, the part of our psyche that contains all the repressed, unacknowledged, and unaccepted aspects of ourselves. As Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist, put it, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

The shadow self can manifest in various ways for business leaders, such as arrogance, impulsiveness, lack of empathy, and micromanagement. These traits can negatively impact the leader’s performance and the team’s morale, productivity, and retention. Thus, leaders must engage in shadow work –exploring and integrating their shadow self – to become more self-aware, authentic, and effective.

Case Study 1: Howard Schultz and Starbucks

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, is a prime example of a business leader who embraced his shadow self and used it to improve his company’s performance. In the late 1990s, Schultz realized that Starbucks’s rapid expansion had diluted the brand’s culture and values. He saw that he had become too controlling, micromanaging every aspect of the company’s operations, and had lost touch with his employees and customers.

Shadow work can significantly impact a leader’s performance and the company’s outcomes

To address this issue, Schultz engaged in shadow work. He went to therapy and introspected on his childhood experiences of being poor and neglected, which had shaped his need for control and perfectionism. He also traveled to Italy, where he observed how coffee shops were not just places to drink coffee but also social and cultural hubs.

As a result of his shadow work, Schultz returned to Starbucks with a renewed vision and humility. He relinquished some control and empowered his employees to express their creativity and ideas. He also redesigned the stores to reflect the Italian coffeehouse concept, creating a more welcoming and authentic atmosphere.

The outcome of Schultz’s shadow work was remarkable. Starbucks’s financial performance improved significantly, and regained its reputation as a socially responsible and innovative brand. Schultz also became a more empathetic and inspiring leader, prioritizing his employees’ well-being and development.

Case Study 2: Oprah Winfrey and Harpo Productions

Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul, and philanthropist, is known for her inspiring and empowering leadership style. However, her journey to self-awareness and authenticity was not always smooth. As a child, Winfrey experienced trauma and abuse, which led her to develop a fear of vulnerability and a need for control.

In her early years as the CEO of Harpo Productions, Winfrey struggled to delegate tasks and trust her team. She was also known for her temper and perfectionism, sometimes creating a tense and stressful work environment. However, Winfrey realized that her leadership style was not sustainable and needed to confront her shadow self.

Winfrey engaged in shadow work by attending therapy, practicing mindfulness, and seeking feedback from her colleagues and mentors. She also reflected on her childhood experiences and realized that her need for control was a coping mechanism for her fear of being hurt or rejected.

As a result of her shadow work, Winfrey became a more compassionate and authentic leader. She learned to trust her team’s abilities and delegate tasks effectively. She also created a culture of support and growth where her employees felt valued and empowered to express their ideas and creativity. Harpo Productions became a successful and innovative media company known for its quality programming and social impact.

Winfrey’s journey of self-discovery and growth is a testament to the power of shadow work for business leaders. By confronting their shadow selves and integrating them into their conscious awareness, leaders can create a more authentic and fulfilling leadership style and improve their company’s performance and impact.

Read also: The impact of leadership style on workplace trauma (2)

Recommendations for engaging in shadow work

From the case studies above, it is clear that shadow work can significantly impact a leader’s performance and the company’s outcomes. However, engaging in shadow work is a challenging task. It requires courage, vulnerability, and a willingness to face one’s fears and shortcomings. Here are some practical recommendations for business leaders who want to engage in shadow work:

1. Seek professional help: You cannot do shadow work alone. It requires the guidance of a therapist, coach, or mentor trained in psychology and personal development. A professional can help you identify your unconscious patterns, triggers, and traumas and provide tools and strategies to integrate them into your conscious awareness.

2. Practice self-reflection: Shadow work is an ongoing process that requires self-reflection and introspection. Set aside time each week to reflect on your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and interactions with others. Write down your observations and insights, and look for patterns and themes that may indicate your shadow self.

3. Embrace feedback: Feedback is a valuable source of information about your blind spots and areas for improvement. Ask your colleagues, employees, and stakeholders for honest feedback about your leadership style, communication skills, and decision-making process. Listen to their feedback without defensiveness or denial, and use it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

4. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is a powerful tool for cultivating self-awareness and emotional regulation. Incorporate mindfulness practices, such as meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga, into your daily routine. These practices can help you stay present, calm, and focused, even in stressful or challenging situations.

5. Create a culture of psychological safety: Shadow work is not just an individual process but also a collective one. As a leader, you can create a culture of psychological safety where your employees feel safe to express their opinions, share their vulnerabilities, and make mistakes without fear of judgment or retaliation. This culture can foster trust, collaboration, and innovation, improving your company’s performance.


In conclusion, shadow work is an essential but often neglected aspect of leadership. By embracing your shadow self, you can become more authentic, compassionate, and effective as a leader and improve your company’s performance and reputation. However, engaging in shadow work requires courage, vulnerability, and support from professionals and peers. Following the recommendations above, you can start your journey of self-discovery and growth and create a more fulfilling and impactful leadership experience for yourself and your team.