Shadow Leadership

Shadow Leaders are leaders in name only. They may have an impressive sounding title or hold a lofty position on an organizational chart but they exhibit few if any leadership characteristics.

They keep their head down, usually do solid work, and are relatively good followers but they stay in the shadows to hide from risk and they do not lead.

Risk involves making decisions, charting a new course, dealing with conflicts, or just trying new things. A Shadow Leader’s first priority is to protect their position and the income that comes with it.

Shadow Leaders focus on what is with little regard for the possibilities of what could be.

Shadow Leaders bring a larger than average expense to their organization for two reasons. First, their good work could be accomplished by someone without the lofty title and compensation. Second and this is worse, far worse actually, because they don’t lead they do nothing to develop the next generation of leaders within their organization.

Their lack of leadership negatively impacts their organization even after they are gone. They leave little behind except a leadership void and perhaps a few other Shadow Leaders who are simply modeling the behavior they saw.

Shadow Leaders aren’t bad people, they just make the all too common mistake of believing that their title or position is what makes them a leader. The fact is that their title or position only gives them a better chance to lead than someone without the fancy title and position.

True Authentic Leadership comes from a person’s disposition not their position. Authentic Leaders know that they can lead from anywhere in their organization, with or without a title and position. They know they can lead down, across and even up.

Authentic Leaders know what is but they see what could be. They limit their time investment in mere “things” so that they can invest the majority of their time in people. Authentic Leaders do not concern themselves with building more followers, they focus on building more leaders including the leader who will one day succeed them. 

While Shadow Leaders are desperate to avoid conflict Authentic Leaders deal with it head-on. They do not let small problems become bigger ones through avoidance. Authentic Leaders do not like conflict more than anyone else but they do understand that when it is dealt with properly growth is almost always the end result.

Authentic Leaders have the courage to operate in broad daylight, with their actions, decisions, mistakes and limitations on display for everyone to see. They willingly risk looking bad in order to do something good.

Here’s the thing, when you’re an Authentic Leader everyone knows you’re leading. If you’re a Shadow Leader the only person who thinks you’re leading is you. 

So if you’re in a leadership position you need to turn around once in a while to see who, if anyone, is following you. If no one is there it just might be that they can’t see you in the shadows.

19 thoughts on “Shadow Leadership

      • Randal Ross MAL says:

        Thank you, very well stated. . I find this often occurs in as the result of two common conditions in business. 1. When companies stop rewarding transformational leadership and instead adopt a myopic focus on current quarterly results. 2. When leaders allow themselves to become overburdened and do not or cannot take time to reflect on longer term results.

      • Thanks Randal, your comment is spot on! Feeding the quarterly monster is a big big issue. I too believe it causes otherwise sound organizations to make very short term decisions and just deal with the consequences “later.”

        But consequences seldom wait for later.

  1. Bryan Garten says:

    Inspiring insight and text. I have been leading for years. I just don’t get a lot of recognition. I may use this as a reminder to do even more. I know I would make an excellent president. I’m hoping to overcome some health issues. I have higher standards for myself. I’m not satisfied with my current condition. I used to do so much more. The human body and mind can only do so much. Pray for God’s favor and assistance to help me more. I will utilize your insight and do as much as I can. I may increase how I can help train others. Stay tuned for some more bold “leading” on Twitter. You don’t always get to see everything I’ve done or do. But I assure you I constantly lift others up and try to make the world a little bit better each day…

  2. TN says:

    Interesting article Brian. There are also studies to show the quiet achiever types are on average better performers than the ones with the Authentic Leader traits you mention above. There are those who appear to be Authentic Leaders but are not there to do good, they are in it for themselves although they make everyone believe they are Authentic Leaders and usually to make the people in higher management believe they are Authentic Leaders and most often the people in higher management do actually fall for it because they were once Make-Believe Authentic Leaders. I would rather the honest Shadow Leader you describe than the narcissistic out in the open do-gooder Make-Believe Authentic Leader. The Shadow Leader (if all he or she is trying to do is lead by example) will often allow the natural leaders to shine themselves and won’t hinder them.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’ve never heard of “make believe Authentic Leaders.” They are either fake or authentic, by definition there is no such thing as an authentic fake….

      If they are merely pretending to be authentic then they are not authentic and they are a shadow leader. When you see an Authentic Leader you will know it and there will be no doubt.

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