Reigning in the Shadow: How Embracing Your Darkness Can Make You a More Effective Leader

3 Benefits of Shadow Work for Leaders

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Think of every great leader you’ve ever worked with and, no matter how charming they may have generally been, you’re sure to come up with at least one memory of them playing a bit rough to get the job done. Invariably, all effective leaders must learn–at some point or another–to balance light and dark or, in one famous leader’s words, ‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’ This however, can be a subtle art to learn. If a person is not already practiced in doing so, setting out to pick it up may prove to be befuddling, if not daunting.

Thankfully, for one seeking insight in walking the leader’s walk, there is much inspiration to be found within the works of one of Sigmund Freud’s most eminent disciples: Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1971).


One of the Swiss psychologist’s most notable ideas was his concept of the shadow. Contrasted with the persona, or surface personality, which he likened to a mask, the shadow is a conglomerate aspect of the psyche comprised of all the persona’s rejected aspects–those that lay hidden from it’s normal consideration. While this typically amounts to those primal impulses weeded out in the socialization process, should the environment prove unaccommodating to them, benign qualities and even virtues may fall into it as well. Hence, the shadow is a blind spot that enshrouds us from the full totality of our being and can warp our perceptions of not only ourselves, but of others and the world-at-large also.

Not surprisingly, this has the potential to be quite the handicap–especially for leaders. Luckily though, it is not one we need remain at the mercy of forever. We hold the choice to integrate the shadow into our personality and, as a result, take one of the biggest steps toward psychological wholeness imaginable. If successful, we win a rather unique prize–a treasure so valued throughout the ages that, as clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson notes, it has been ensconced in our mythologies time and again, as the treasure housed within the dragon’s cave (why else would a dragon be hoarding gold: to invest in Bitcoin?) .

This treasure is among the greatest we may come to possess; for as Laozi so adeptly put it, self-knowledge and self-control are invaluable gems:

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

Daodejing Chapter 33

The Prizes:

The following is a brief sketch of three qualities of leadership that may be won or enhanced in the wake of a successful shadow integration.


The shadow is comprised of elements often very disturbing to the persona, elements that stubbornly ‘resist’ discovery. Hence, their integration into the greater psyche amounts to going on a long and dreadfully arduous trek to a place you don’t want to go, all in order to see and tame terrible yet elusive creatures that you’ve spent your life trying not to see.

Distasteful of an ordeal as that may seem, imagine just how small and hollow the normal workplace boogeymen would seem after having successfully managed such a toilsome journey? Taking on that risky new venture, renegotiating the terms of that contract, nixing that promising initiative–all of these would shrink down to mere trifles, as you would know, in the depth of your being, that you’d survived far worse. When you possess a resolve of that kind of profundity, not only does it give you the drive to move mountains and conquer foes, but it fills those around you with the belief that they are able to move those mountains and conquer those foes right alongside you.


With the increasingly intimate understanding of your own dark side, you become less likely to project your shortcomings unto others, therefore gaining a more objective view of the world around you. Reserves of mental energy are then liberated and channeled toward understanding the world in greater depth and facing new challenges with greater courage, rather than keeping these stores ensnared in the useless task of maintaining self-limiting narratives of inadequacy and victimhood. The benefit this would supply an individual in the areas of management, negotiation and networking should be self-evident.


Once you have fortitude and clarity of vision, you then become able to make firmer (and potentially harsher) decisions much more quickly. No longer as sensitive to the prospect of fear or difficulty, nor susceptible to the perceptual distortions that arise from these two, finding the right course of action and being able to act upon on it becomes many degrees easier.


While the virtues of such a rewarding process could never be fully accounted for in so brief a treatment, enough of the skeleton has been described that should afford the reader with sufficient insight into how worthwhile shadow integration may potentially be. 

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