Character: the shadow side

shutterstock_1838598141While it should be obvious that, as Parker Palmer puts it, a leader has the ability to project either light or shadow, it may be less obvious that leadership strengths have a shadow side. For example, resilience can easily become stubbornness; discernment can become judgementalism.

Samuel Rima observed that,

The personal characteristics that drive individuals to succeed and lead often have a shadow side that can cripple them once they become leaders and very often causes significant failure.

Here are four examples I have noted in from talking with several leaders (some of whom I have quoted):

  • Self-reliance/resilience
  • The ability to confront
  • Passion
  • A strong sense of call

Self-reliance can lead to resilience, but can make it difficult to relinquish control.

[Self-reliance] been a strength… in that I have faced things that some of my brothers and sisters in ministry would have gone off with stress. And I don’t think I’ll ever go off with stress… But it’s …bad in that (a) I find it hard to let go and let God and (b) I think I find it hard to … to not be cynical, you know that if I depend on people I expect they’ll let me down, and, you know, so I… have to keep things right.

As this leader says, there is clearly a negative side to ‘self-reliance’, when it gets in the way of depending on God. But it’s tricky when it come disguised as resilience – a vital quality for successful leadership.

The ability to be confrontational enables a leader to deal with problems, but can lead to harshness.

There’s a few stories of people who I confront and it wasn’t nice and I had to go back and apologise, which was the right thing to do.

Passion enables a leader to get things done but can lead to burnout or damage to others.

Passion is a two-edged sword; it both gets things done but it burns you out…

My passion made me very single-focused in terms of … I don’t regret a single thing I challenged, but I regret deeply the way I went about it – in some cases.

It’s those leaders who operate with passion and drive who are most likely to accomplish significant goals – and every organisation needs them, especially in ground-breaking or particularly challenging situations. Some leaders may have deeper emotional resources than others, but the leader quoted here warns about the potential of burning out (which might be better than rusting out, but, either way, the leader is out!). And there is, of course, the potential for collateral damage in those you lead.

A clear sense of call can lead to confidence and focus, but may also lead to drivenness and neglect of other areas of life.

Ministers, especially those in the reformed tradition, who have this sense of call, are so driven, everything else just falls… secondary. Because everything has to be on the basis of what God has called you to do…. There is something wrong here.

This may be particularly delicate in that having a strong sense of God’s call on one’s life can appear to be such a spiritual thing! If God has called a leader to a mission, who or what would dare to get in the way! Os Guiness (in The Call) challenges those who prefer to concentrate on that part of their calling which sits closest to the core of their giftedness at the expense of what they regard as more peripheral aspects, Guinness argues that ‘calling is comprehensive, not partial. We need to remember that calling has multiple dimensions and includes our relationships…. This distinction is important because it is easy to become spoiled if we concentrate on the core of our giftedness – as if the universe existed only to fulfill our gifts.’

If you are a leader you will need to develop a humble introspection and a willingness to allow yourself to be challenged.

Concluding words on this to Leighton Ford:

Every leader has a ‘shadow’ side, like the dark side of the moon – areas that are disguised, or perhaps explored but unrecognized. I am convinced that our leadership will be stronger and the dangers of collapse lesser if we become aware of these dark areas and bring them into the light early.’

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