What is the leadership shadow?

While not a new concept in the field of leadership, the Leadership Shadow is a concept that is yet to secure it’s place in professional discourse. That fact is disheartening, as the Leadership Shadow is not only a highly beneficial skill for Leaders to understand and utilise, but indeed necessary for a fully functioning leader.

The Leadership Shadow concept posits that everything a leader does affects those that they lead. This doesn’t just apply to what they say and do, but to what they don’t say, and what they don’t do. Without deliberately engineering positive interactions and mediating negative inaction, a Leader will inevitably perform well below their potential.

What does the shadow look like?

Let’s look at an example from one of our clients, who were having trouble engaging middle management to participate in a leadership development program.

Despite a clearly identified need and an interest shown by the participants, the organisation was struggling to convince learners to commit time to participate in learning development initiatives. A review of the learners’ situations, and a number of honest interviews, revealed that the key barrier to their participation was a perception that their direct managers did not value the program as highly as their ongoing business objectives. This perception led the participants to shirk their learning and development training in favour of maximising the time they could spend on their usual daily tasks.

This begged the question; what did managers tell their people to make them think they did not value their leadership development? The answer; nothing. Those managers had not shared anything out of the ordinary since the beginning leadership development program – and that was precisely the issue. The participants had been led to believe, thanks to internal communications, good foreshadowing of the program pre-launch, and clear expectations for the end of the program, that this development initiative was important to the organisation.

However, their managers, who had not said anything negative, dismissive, or pessimistic about the program, had inadvertently used their shadow to help their people reach this conclusion. Not through negativity, but through simply placing their attention elsewhere. The leadership shadow is not about just about what you say and do, but how what you don’t say and don’t do can have just a great an impact.

A lack of management influence is a common symptom of ineffective leadership programs. The root causes of this failure are numerous; managers are busy, and showing interest in a leadership program requires significant effort and focus on their part. Managers also don’t fully understand the way in which their influence affects leadership development programs, and thus they don’t proactively pursue this influence.

How do de help leaders use their shadow?

So how do we help leaders fully engage their shadow in a positive manner?

The first step would be awareness. For this reason we gravitate toward leadership shadow as a key topic in every leadership development program we design.

This doesn’t just have to occur in a formal learning environment. However, in the modern age leaders can begin challenging themselves with fresh ideas over a cup of coffee. The following Simon Sinek video, for example, is an ideal first introduction for leaders to a complex area of influence.



In the modern age of digital learning, it’s important to remember that every day there are countless opportunities for personal development. Using every resource available to you as a learning designer or leader to slowly seep this learning into your people’s daily lives is a form of leadership shadow utilisation.

Just like a real shadow, the leader’s influence is always there, and as a learning developer, you can fulfill the same role to the leader. Our goal should be to forge leaders who deliberately harness the effect of their leadership shadow to the benefit of the business.