The 5 Shadow-Casting Monsters of a Leader’s Inner Life

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What makes someone a leader, actually?

Parker Palmer, in his fascinating book Let Your Life Speak, answers that question this way:

“A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there.”

I like this definition. It’s specific. But it busts the doors wide open on who can lead. Anyone reading this blog probably possesses the power to lead in at least one arena of life, however small.

The question then is, As leaders, will we project shadow or light onto the sphere of our influence?

Palmer suggests leaders must engage in constant, deliberate soul-searching—“inner work,” he calls it—to avoid the following five “monsters” that often cast dark shadows onto those we lead:

1. Insecurity of identity and worth

“When we are insecure about our own identities, we create settings that deprive other people of their identities as a way of buttressing our own…Your sense of self is enhanced by leaders who know who they are.”

2. The belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests

“Some of our best institutions…are learning that there is another way of doing business, a way that is consensual, cooperative, communal: they are…creating a different reality.”

3. Functional atheism: The belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us

“This is the conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen…This shadow causes pathology on every level of our lives:”

  • It leads us to impose our will on others.
  • It often eventuates in burnout, depression, and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact.
  • It drives collective frenzy.

“Ours is not the only act in town. Not only are there other acts out there, but some of them are even better than ours! We need not carry the whole load but can share it with others, liberating and empowering them. Sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether.”

4. Fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life

“We want to organize and orchestrate things so thoroughly that messiness will never bubble up around us and threaten to overwhelm us (for ‘messiness’ read dissent, innovation, challenge, and change)…This shadow is projected as rigidity of rules and procedures, creating an ethos that is imprisoning rather than empowering. (Then, of course, the mess we must deal with is the prisoners trying to break out!)…[However,] chaos is the precondition to creativity.”

5. The denial of death itself

“Leaders who participate in this denial often demand that the people around them keep resuscitating things that are no longer alive. Projects and programs that should have been unplugged long ago are kept on life support to accommodate the insecurity of a leader who does not want anything to die on his or her watch…Death finally comes to everything—and yet death does not have the final word. By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.”

Do you see any of these “monsters” lurking in your leadership? Have you experienced others casting these shadows upon you? Have you thought about these things before?

Thanks to my friend Caitlyn for recommending Let Your Life Speak. It’s a thought-provoking little book. I highly recommend it to seasoned leaders who are open to introspection about and evaluation of their own leadership legacy, up to this point on their journey.

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