What's Your Leadership Shadow?

In the corporate world, we are used to thinking about a leader’s influence in terms of the positive impact they can have on their teams. But what about the less positive and unexpected ways they can influence those around them?

In our work, we have seen this play out time and time again.  Leaders almost always cast a shadow, even if unintentionally.  The shadow is cast by both the actions – and inactions – of a leader.  The shadow may be based on the leader’s own personality, it may be an unconscious transfer of their own perspectives onto others, or it may just be that the team are overly influenced by their leader’s wishes.  These shadows can have a significant impact on the culture within an organisation and how willing people are to take responsibility for making decisions.

In one of our case study organisations the leadership team had asked a working group to take responsibility for the redesign of the office seating plan.  Parameters were set up front, representatives from all teams were actively involved yet a when the group returned with their solution, the Director of Operations didn’t like the new design and demanded a place on the working group and an invite to their next meeting. This very quickly undermined any sense of agency the group had and significantly impacted on their willingness to take responsibility for decision-making again.

We have identified 6 types of leaders and the shadow they cast.  As soon as you can identify your leadership shadow you can become more aware of its influence and how it may be undermining your team’s willingness to take responsibility for making decisions.

  • The Micro Manager – This leader appears to delegate decision-making responsibility but remains in the background constantly checking how things are going, making suggestions, getting involved. They never quite let their people do things on their own.  As a result, individuals feel like they can’t make mistakes and become reluctant to experiment and learn for fear of being judged and/or give up and just follow the leader’s steer learning there is little point in really thinking for themselves.  
  • The Blamer  -This leader delegates responsibility but when things don’t go as expected they are quick to jump in and apportion blame and find out what went wrong. They create a culture of fear and distrust and individuals become fearful of taking ownership due to the perceived consequences.
  • The Unprepared – This leader doesn’t have a clear vision for the team or a plan to achieve it. They might delegate decisions and then change their mind later on, or it may seem like they are not interested in hearing your ideas because they don’t know why they’re important to begin with.
  • The Manipulator – This boss delegates a decision but then works in the background to push until it’s achieved in line with their own vision for the outcome. They might be having 1-1 meetings to influence key stakeholders, undermining the named decision-maker, or withholding key information from them. They don’t trust their team members to make a good decision without their direct involvement, so they keep an iron grip on everything—and that’s when trust gets eroded fast and individuals start feeling disempowered.
  • The Absentee –  This leader delegates a decision and then entirely withdraws, offering no further support. They expect their team members to have all the knowledge they need to make a good decision without them needing to get involved, which can be great if they do have all that knowledge… but usually there are questions or issues that come up along the way that need some input.
  • The “I Know Best” Leader – This leader doesn’t trust others to make a good decision without their direct involvement believing only they have the expertise to make a decision and therefore doesn’t delegate anything. Individuals become frustrated at their lack of autonomy and the leader eventually becomes overwhelmed with their workload, becoming a bottleneck.

If we want individuals to truly feel they have the authority and agency to act and make decisions, then the importance of having a leader who truly trusts their team and is willing to relinquish control and power cannot be underestimated.  However, the other side of this is the need for those same leaders to provide sufficient support and guidance to their people along the way.

The challenge lies in finding that fine balance between giving enough support and guidance whilst also allowing people to experiment freely, take risks, make mistakes, learn from them and ultimately succeed.  People need a safe space if they’re going to step out of their comfort zone.  This can be tough for leaders who are more used to wielding control themselves; however, it is imperative that they create an environment where people feel safe enough in their own skin to grow, develop and innovate.