How to improve your leadership shadow? Ask a Danish politician

One of the biggest transitions leaders have to make is the shift from being an individual person to becoming a job title and a brand – the impact of managing people you seldom see or might never meet.

This can have complicated and unexpected implications, as an example this week in the Danish parliament vividly demonstrates. Understanding your leadership shadow is the first step to improving your impact as a leader.

Denmark’s the spot. Or not…

Denmark is consistently rated one of the most progressive countries to live in, and one of the best places to be a woman. Like many Scandinavian countries there is a perceived cultural emphasis on happiness and equality over ’hard’ metrics such as GDP and wealth per capita.

But this week the country made global headlines when politician Mette Abildgaard was asked to leave parliament because she had brought her child to work. A childcare hiccup meant that she took her baby daughter into the chamber for a vote, only to apparently receive a note from the speaker that informed her ““You are not welcome with your baby in the parliament’s chamber.”

There’s no doubt an article to be written on this about the dinosaur attitudes of lawmakers, or perhaps on how some people seek to generate headlines through provocative stunts, but I want instead to talk about the leadership development lessons that we can take from this, and specifically what is says about the shadow you cast as a leader.

You’re no longer a person, you’re a brand

Becoming a leader involves many adjustments and transitions. You shift from being a technical expert to delivering through others. Different skills are needed, and as Marshall Goldsmith famously put it, what got you here won’t get you there.

But the biggest adjustment for many leaders, and one that is often overlooked, is the transition from managing and influencing people in the room to leading and being responsible for people and teams you seldom see or might never meet.

For many leaders, particularly at senior levels, this means you stop being an individual person and you become a job title and a brand.

Specifically, this means understanding and managing your leadership shadow.

The leadership shadow is a concept that has been around pretty much since leadership itself. Like every good idea there are a lot of people claiming credit for having come up with it, but it is Goldman Sachs who are generally viewed as having codified the concept into a widely-used model.

This encourages leaders to consider their impact through a framework of four elements; what you say, how you act, what you measure and what you prioritise. This provides a useful mental model for leaders to help understand the wider impact of what they do, and it is a one that we’ve used successfully with lots of clients.

It helps identify unforeseen considerations for leaders, particularly in large global organisations where they might be leading people that they don’t often see or even ever meet. When you become a figurehead then you stop being seen as a person and you are instead a representative of a team, department or company.

Understand the leadership shadow you cast

We worked with a newly-promoted CFO who discovered this the hard way. Stressed one morning and dealing with an unexpected Board request, he was bumped in the company café by a young graduate and spilled coffee on his shirt. He responded sharply and dashed off. He immediately regretted it and apologised later that day to the grad, who graciously accepted the apology and moved on.

But it was publicly seen, and by the time we met him the story had grown into one about how leaders at the company were aloof and rude, junior staff needed to know their place and accept poor behaviour as a rite of passage, and how this showed what a hierarchical and unforgiving culture there was within the organisation.

It was no longer an isolated story about how stressed Prakash was when he bumped into Chloe, but an organisational parable about how all senior leaders treat junior staff and what this means for the culture.

A lot of our leadership development work, whether it is in workshops, coaching or broader leadership programs, focuses on helping participants understand and manage this transition.

That might include providing frameworks and models to help them do so, or more practical activity to jolt them into realising the unconscious impact they have – vox pop video clips of junior staff talking about how they are perceived, showing press cuttings or using 360 surveys – or getting them to talk about public figures (such as Danish politicians…) and the conclusions they draw about culture and leadership.

Whatever the form the activity takes, helping leaders understand the shadow they cast and how to manage it is a crucial part of leadership development. Small actions by leaders can have much larger consequences and that must be managed; a Danish politician passed a note to a colleague, I read about it on American and British news websites and I am writing about it in Sydney, Australia. Now that’sa leadership shadow.

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