Owning Your Shadow Side

light and shadow side
Light and shadow side of sunset

Leaders who want coaching are successful, smart people. So why do I insist that we approach their dark or shadow side? Because that’s where the gold is.

Leaders want coaching for a variety of reasons. They may have been promoted to a new role and want some new tips and tricks. They may have had feedback on watch-outs and want to learn new ways to deal with that. Or they may have experienced a perfect storm situation, where a combination of external circumstances and their own personality triggered an unexpected blow-up or undesirable behaviour.

New Circumstances Reveal Different Facets

In all cases, changing circumstances highlight what was there all along. It’s like a beautiful sunset. During the day, we see mostly short wavelength blue colours. But at sunset, when the sunlight travels a longer path through the atmosphere to reach our eyes, the blue light has been mostly removed, leaving mostly red and yellow light remaining. The red and yellow was there all along, but invisible to us.

For leaders, new circumstances bring new demands, calling on their proven strengths, demanding new skills and attitudes and bringing out their shadow side.

Metaphors Capture Light and Shadow Side

In the Integral Coaching®method I use, this multi-faceted combination of personal strengths and challenges is captured through a Current Way of Being metaphor. These rich images tap into the creative part of the mind and give both coach and client a snapshot summary of the core coaching challenge. Here are some examples;

Based on her successful background in innovation, one client was promoted to a Senior Director role. In order to promote this innovation more broadly in her organization, she needed to develop her strategic leadership skills. Her Current Way metaphor was The Innovative Border Collie. This worked well when leading her team and arguing persuasively on the merits of her area of innovation. Not so much when liaising with senior executives, who had to figure out how to balance the innovation with their existing platforms. Her tendency to act quickly and present her case ever more forcefully meant that others felt  like they were being herded into a position.

Another client had moved from the regulatory side of the sector to a Vice President role on the service side.  The mandate was to address immediate issues and drive toward risk managed innovation in service operations. Her Current Way metaphor was The Take Charge Governor. This represented well her experience in operational excellence and her fierce protectiveness of her team. But she could no longer act by fiat, and when people didn’t buy in quickly, her take-charge-ness was viewed as disruptive.

As the Chief Operating Officer of an expanding utility, one client was intent on modeling the shift to a more intentional culture. His Current Way metaphor was Mr. Crazy Glue of Care. His hands-on approach and personal caring had worked well in a smaller organization. But with acquisitions, he was being stretched thin, not delivering the tough messages or ensuring that his Directors communicated and lived out the espoused values.

Metaphor Creates Awareness of Self and Other

As an Integral Master Coach™, I bring both skilled experience, deep curiosity and an open heart in developing a customized metaphor for a client. Like a skilled acupuncturist, I aim for that sweet spot;  it may hurt a bit but will release a lot! Together with my client, we co-refine the Current Way metaphor, understanding how this pattern shows up in ways of talking and behaving, in their assumptions about themselves and others.  (I don’t leave them hanging there, but also create a New Way metaphor, but that’s the subject of another blog!)

A good metaphor creates self-awareness. It helps a client become aware of blind spots, unexamined assumptions, emotional triggers, holding patterns in the body. It also fosters other-awareness, of unintended impact on others, of ripple effects on the team or larger culture.

These patterns serve us well, until they don’t. Changing circumstances may mean they are less useful. The positional power that comes with a promotion may magnify their effects. Over use of a strength may have left us under developed in other skills.

Situational Mindfulness for your strengths and shadow side

In a coaching program, I help a client to become more aware their Current Way, how it shows up in their lives and how to include its strengths and develop new develop new skills as they move toward their vision.

Here are some things  you can do for yourself. Mindful awareness skills will serve you well here; my book Mind Your Lifeshows you how to cultivate those skills.

Think of a situation where you surprised yourself by what you did. A blow-up, an action or remark you’re not proud of, or your typical response to a stressful situation.

Look at yourself, like having a little webcam directed toward you.

  • What was the situation – person, place or time of day? Who were you with?
  • What wereyou thinking at that time?
  • What did you say?
  • What did you think, but not say?
  • What were your emotions?
  • If someone were looking at you, what would your body posture have been like?
  • How would a friend or colleague have commented on this to you?

Now ask  yourself,

  • What is one of my strengths, that I perhaps over-used here?
  • What is part of my shadow side that got triggered?
  • What one thing can I do differently moving forward?
  • Who can support me in this?
  • If this shadow side were transmuted, what would that look like?

Happy digging for gold, found in your own personal shadow side!


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