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Leadership Shadow

Leadership Shadow

Ever since I started working as a manager many years ago, I have been intrigued by leadership. I have always found it hard to grasp: What is it exactly? When is one considered a good leader? What makes a leader lose his/her impact? How come some leaders seem brilliant but find it hard to relate to people? … As it goes I never got much time to research the topic properly, I gained some insight during my Vlerick management course, but apart from that I mainly developed my expertise through feedback, coaching, discussions with peers, reading the occasional article and, frankly, I relied rather heavily on my own gut feeling.

Having taken six months’ time off, researching leadership became one of my top priorities as it sort of became essential for me to understand it better. During my search I accidentally stumbled upon a book ‘The Leadership Shadow. How to recognize and avoid derailment, hubris and overdrive’ by Erik De Haan en Anthony Kasozi (2014 Kogan Page). The title puzzled me as it so overtly referred to the downside of leadership, not very common at all. Needless to say, I am glad it caught my attention as it turned out to be a game changer for me. While reading a lot of things fell into place and it just made sense.
This is a book written by academics who are also executive coaches and powerful communicators. It is thoroughly researched, yet steeped in practical leadership experience. It is well structured yet lively and varied as it also contains numerous cases, fables, quotes and exercises. It is easy to read and navigate, busy executives can just read the summary at the end of each chapter and/or zoom in on the topics they really want to investigate closer. But its real appeal is that it helps executives and their entourage discover what actually happens when they break down, derail or go into overdrive, how they can recognise these corrupting patterns and excesses of leadership and more importantly what they can do about it so as to prevent or remedy them. The book contains a few do-it-yourself chapters (chapters 4, 10 and 14, Appendix) to guide executives (possibly assisted by a coach) through the process of self-reflection to arrive at enduring insights so they can work on improving their leadership approach.

But how do De Haan and Kasozi define leadership? Well, it is actually quite simple. The leader enhances the performance of his organisation and takes the organisation to its next level. He is a facilitator, and “helps aggregate the various contributions in a concerted approach”. In doing so he does not necessarily take centre stage: “Leadership is in principle selfless rather than self-aggrandizing.” In defining leadership like this they adopt a relational perspective on leadership. “The outcome of an organization is a result of the combined work of all members of that organization, who work together as a team¨. (p.33) Therefore, leaders need to encourage and actually thrive on open communication and critical upward feedback.
An important aspect of De Haan en Kasozi’s view on leadership is that adopting a leadership role automatically creates a rift within oneself. The leadership role demands the leader to be optimistic, creative, enthusiastic, constructive and bold whereas he needs to suppress his doubts, insecurity, vulnerability, concerns and so on. Leadership has thus two sides to it. De Haan en Kasozi refer to this dark side as the leadership shadow. Being a good leader is a constant balancing act between these two sides, yin and yang so to speak or in Ofman’s terms core strengths and pitfalls (2002). According to the authors, remarkably few leaders are in tune with their deeper, underlying needs and are willing to listen to their inner self. When under pressure, they may go into overdrive and develop patterns that are excessive and possibly toxic for their organisation. De Haan and Kasozi describe eleven patterns of derailment, all of which they give graphic names such as ‘the Glowing Gatsbys’, the ‘Simmering Stalwarts’ and so on.

What the executive needs to bring out the best in himself, his team and his company and achieve a tenable balance is insight in his/her own shadow side and the tools to come to grips with it. The book is a serious attempt to achieve just that.
And to finish with a quote from Françoise Kourilsky, a French psychologist/coach, who spoke at an ICF conference on September 21: “Le mal contient du bien et vice versa. Nos défauts abritent des compétences.”