Leaders are a special category, because what they do and say and the decisions they make affect many others. If shadow behavior is evident, and the leader is not willing to acknowledge it and take responsibility for it, he or she is a dangerous leader. He or she does not have control over the shadow side of the system.
On the other hand, if a leader becomes aware and conscious, in the moment, he or she can direct the system away from its shadow side, moving it in a far more powerful, and more beneficial, direction.
So, for example, a business team hits a crisis point, and the key members of the team are driving one another crazy. They are polar opposites. One is a fixer: “We have to move fast and cut 30 percent, with no nonsense about the damage to morale.” The other is a protector: “My God, do you really believe that? We’ll lose our best people, and the larger culture is going to suffer.” And then the survivor chimes in: “I’m going to keep our morale up, even if I have to do it all myself. I’ll work twice as hard, 24 hours a day. And we’ll get it back.”
If the leader of the team can read these moves in a high-stakes situation, he or she knows how to be a competent bystander. “If we listen to ourselves,” the leader might begin, “It’s clear we all want the same thing, but we’re going after it from different directions. Let’s focus on what we want to have come out of this mess.”
Given enough skill and experience at reading the room, a leader can make some moves that bridge the gap—that don’t just assuage the intuitive needs of the heroic modes of the individuals involved, but that make strategic sense. An individual who can do that well is obviously a superior leader.
Reprint No. 00154
- Art Kleiner is editor-in-chief of strategy+business.