The Shadow of the Leader

Grant Dryden

Grant Dryden

When a person first investigates leadership, they will hear about “the shadow of the leader.” The leader of any team will cast a “shadow” across the team. It will be composed of who the leader is, what they believe, and what they tolerate. If the leader is not trusting of the team, then the shadow will cause the team to be less trusting. They will be less trusting and more closed off with each other and their leader. The team becomes a reflection of the leader by living in their shadow.

This shadow effect doesn’t necessarily need to reflect bad qualities of leadership only. It can also cast a positive effect such as self-discipline or integrity within the team. It is important to note that leadership can take many different forms. I am specifically referring to the ability to influence people. We see leaders emerge at work, in our friend groups, and in sports. This is the moment where this shadow begins to be cast.

Leadership in our Youth

Think back to your childhood and the environment your parents created for you to live in. Whether it was good or bad, we all lived in the shadow of our parents. We’re a product of that upbringing. If our mom or dad were in a bad mood, we might have avoided them until they cheered up a little. If one of our parents was a little disorganized, we might have grown up to be a little disorganized… or maybe we went the complete opposite direction! The point is, every little thing that our parents did had an impact on us because they were a major authority figure, and leader, in our lives. We watched, learned from, and noticed things we liked and didn’t like about them. We then chose to adopt or reject the behaviors that we observed.

The shadow that a leader casts is proportional to the authority that the leader has over others. If we are close to the team our shadow will be relatively small. As we gain a larger and larger following we will cast a larger shadow. As we get farther away from the team it’s almost as if we get closer to some far off light source. By moving closer to the light and farther from the team, our shadow gets bigger and is cast over more and more people.


Culture is set top-down

This concept of the “shadow” is precisely why constant self-improvement is so important. Without missing the obvious, self improvement will make you better which is always great. But even better than that, it will set the example, tone, and culture for the team. If you are constantly reading, learning, and disciplining yourself the team will notice. They will see your success and adopt some of your habits. Over time, this development of discipline will greatly impact their performance and permeate all aspects of their life and work.

The team will become a reflection of who their leader is. If your team is not performing well, first take a good look in the mirror and consider that you may be the reason why.

As we mentioned in our article Good is the Enemy of Great, behaviors that you tolerate as a leader matter more than what you preach to your team. What you tolerate from your team will eventually become the team culture.

If someone were to miss a deadline, are there any repercussions or will the hard conversation be avoided? If you choose to avoid a hard conversation, congratulations, the team now thinks that’s an OK thing to do. You have chosen to accept substandard performance.

If this happens, it’s not the end of the world. At any point in time we can choose to begin to build self-discipline. The next time a deadline is missed, don’t miss out on that hard conversation. They’re called hard conversations because they’re hard! They’re not fun, but everyone is happier and better off when they’ve at least been had. Be consistent with your team and they will thank you for it.

It’s like going to the gym: few people love the pain and effort, but everyone likes the results. Nobody has ever said, “I wish that workout was easier.”

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

There’s one last bit of information that we should discuss here. There’s something called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon that we can leverage as we pursue self-improvement. This phenomenon states that once you discover something new or novel, the frequency by which you see it in everyday life will increase.

For example, let’s say you learn something neat about fitness trackers and do some research on them. As you learn about the different models, you will start to notice when people you talk to are wearing them. Up until this point you probably didn’t care about fitness trackers, but now they appear to be everywhere! In reality, nothing has actually changed, only your perception has changed. This is the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon in action.

So, as we pursue self-improvement it is inevitable that we will learn new and novel things. Then, we will naturally begin to see these new ideas in our every day life. By noting these things and sharing our experiences with our team mates, we are helping them to learn and grow. They will get some of the benefit from our own growth, which is better than having no growth at all. Learn new things, notice them in your environment, and share that knowledge so others can benefit from your work.

Be open and honest with your team if you want them to be open and honest with you. By continually growing you will be fostering a mindset of continual growth in your people.

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