Parker Palmer, writer, teacher and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, was recently a guest on the Reboot Podcast, where he and host Jerry Colonna discussed leadership and the ways that leaders can improve themselves, and their companies by careful self-exploration and a deeper engagement with what Palmer and Colonna call our ‘shadow.’ The foundation of their thinking is the notion that every one of us is, or should be on a quest for wholeness, not perfection, and that in order to achieve wholeness we must account for what we are subconsciously bringing to the world. What are the things we carry with us that even we cannot see? What is the deal with that unseen shadow, and why is it important to explore?
As Socrates famously wrote, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” If we are to be whole, we must accept that we have flaws, insecurities, and things about which we are self-conscious. We must understand that these pockets of darkness are as much a part of our identities as our light. Palmer adds an amendment to the philosopher’s quote, “If you’re going to live an unexamined life, please do not take a job that involves other people.” Working with others, or leading them, involves more than face-to-face interaction; there is also a subconscious relation, the interplay between the things we bring to the table without meaning to. Palmer and Colonna encourage us to ask, “How does what I’ve denied about myself end up shaping the organization? Positively or negatively?”
To be whole, then, is to accept the light and the dark, the conscious and subconscious, both the body and the shadow. Leaders are often pressured to be perfect, and if not perfect, than they must be perennially strong. To acknowledge one’s shadow is to acknowledge inherent weakness, which can be troublesome to leaders. What Palmer and Colonna do in this podcast is illuminate the ways an examination of shadow puts leaders on a trajectory for success. Colonna cites a Taoist proverb about a man who, so displeased with the sound of his footsteps, with the look of his shadow, decides to escape them both by running. Yet no matter how fast he runs, his footsteps still sound, and his shadow keeps up easily – the man runs faster and faster, until he eventually dies, never realizing that he could have experienced silence had he only stood still, been free from shadow had he only stepped into the shade. Colonna’s employment of this story is a powerful and effective image – the harder we try and escape ourselves, the bigger we will become. But what’s the point, beyond mere self-acceptance, to put ourselves through such a potentially brutal process as examining our shadows?
“Shadow qualities can be a 10,000 volt power line,” says Colonna. “We can use it if plugged in properly.” Self-ownership combats what Palmer calls Functional Atheism, the idea that, “If anything good is going to happen here, in the classroom or the workplace, I’m the only one that can make that happen.” This notion can otherwise be understood as a kind of monarchy of productivity, that the leader is all powerful, that any success or failure rests on his/her shoulders alone. A self-examined leader will understand the importance of engaging his/her team members, that everyone together will be smarter and more successful than any individual alone. This leads to what Palmer and Colonna refer to as, ‘relational trust’ and can help reframe any perceived failure as simply an experiment that didn’t succeed.
The two men encourage us to take a page from the scientific method in this approach to failure. A failed hypothesis can be more successful than one that works, because when an experiment fails, an entire set of variables can removed, paving the way for future progress. The analogy can really apply to the entire message in this illuminating podcast. Leaders should, like scientists, recognize and embrace the inevitability of failure and the lessons that come from it, and they should look at themselves less like all-powerful actors in a game where perfection is king, but rather as individuals engaged in laboratory experiments where new lessons are learned every single day.
Listen to the episode here.