Leadership, relatedness and the shadow side

23rd September 2015
In uncertain times, answers lie in the shadows.

Certainty is not your friend.

Everything is related to everything else.

Don’t look for answers in plain view; the best solutions lie in the shadows.

These were the themes raised at the 3rd International Relational Coaching Conference at Ashridge Business School in July. Prof Ernesto Spinelli and Erik de Haan talked about their findings from their research into these areas. The implications for business leaders are exciting. And applying the lessons are more straightforward than you might think.

Uncertainty as a force for creative action

Certainty is embedded into Western culture, and yet we are all in a near constant state of uncertainty. Unexpected things happens all the time; they create anxiety when we can’t see a clear way through them. For example, even at the most basic level, trying to finish straightforward projects on time can create huge tensions, missed deadlines, and some very unfortunate unforeseen consequences, all because of the planning fallacy – our in built tendency to underestimate the time and resources it takes to get things done.

Uncertainty can unsettle us to our core. At the same time, many of our attempts to reduce uncertainty through exercising greater control are, if we are honest, futile. Set against a background of the demand for certainty from the business leadership, the scope for antagonism, the ‘blame culture’ and disharmony is huge.

That said, uncertainty can also be a force for good. We all know the saying, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. There is a lot of truth in this, especially for business leaders who don’t panic, who don’t blame their people, and who get going when the going gets tough. These are the people who turn adversity to commercial advantage, who move while the competition are fretting about what to do next, who always look like they are one step ahead.

Harnessing relatedness

Orange’s 2008 Ad campaign, ‘I am who I am because of everyone’ spells out the core principle of relatedness. Understanding that we live in a relational world is essential if we are to understand what we need, individually and as a business.

Business leaders who remember who supported them on their way up are often more reflexive and self-aware, and better supported when times get tough.

Our own coaching approach, which often takes a highly relational perspective, often helps clients to see new things and to see the familiar through fresh eyes.

Revealing your shadow side

Carl Jung was one of the first to talk about the bright side and the shadow side of our personality. The bright side being that side of us we want to show to the world, and the shadow side being that which we want to hide from the world.

The gap between the two ‘opens up’ when we are under stress, and so becomes more obvious to see, making business leaders vulnerable to criticism from many different angles by demotivated or disaffected members of staff.

We know from our work that leaders often feel lonely, bored, and distanced from the rest of the world. They can also feel vulnerable in uncertain times and will try harder and harder to make things work. De Haan calls the response to a prolonged gap between the bright and shadow sides ‘overdrive’. We think ‘overheating’ is a better way to describe it. And as expected, it is far more likely to happen when the stakes are high and the period of pressure is intense and long lasting. Business leaders will often display behaviours of hubris, derailment or withdrawal.

If achieving certainty is an illusion, how can business leaders prevent overheating?

This is our quick 1,2,3 for business leaders who are under the cosh.

1) Develop and improve your understanding of your own, and others’, vulnerable shadow side.

2) Be more self-aware when you experience uncertainty, and make a note of your insights to help you in the future.

3) Work with your team from a position of relatedness.

We are running a ‘Me and My Shadow’ breakfast briefing workshop Tuesday Oct 6th 2015 at The Hospital Club in Covent Garden. We will be working with the group on how our shadow side reveals itself and assessing its impact on leadership. Members please book through the club. Any non-members who are interested, please drop Mark or Patrick an email. We have a few guest slots available.


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