The Shadow Principle


"I'm curious as to your views on titles, and what they mean to you," prompted John, my father-in-law, as Kelsey and I were out on a walk with him one sunny afternoon. "Since you all have new positions now, does that affect how you view yourself or your work?" 

I'm extremely fortunate to know John. For one thing, he welcomed me into his family on Day 1 and has always given me the benefit of the doubt, something I imagine is not easy to do when a man begins dating your daughter. 

But there's something else, too: He's one of those rare people who, while only fifty-five years of age, strikes you as having done two hundred years worth of living.

He's as wise as he is amiable, brimming with humor yet never lacking in sincerity. He served as a brigadier general in the military, and not without reason, as it doesn't take long for anyone with a shred of insight to realize that strong leadership and perception are baked into his DNA. 

He also asks great questions, which brings us back to his inquiry above. 

He knew that Kelsey had become Head Performance Coach of her training facility, and that I'll soon be installed as an elder in my local church, so he wanted to see if the fact that we had new "titles" really made a difference to us, psychologically or practically. 

Kelsey and I took turns providing our thoughts on the matter, but John only furrowed his eyebrows and continued to probe, as we obviously hadn't reached the heart of the subject he was guiding us toward. 

Eventually he told us to stop walking. "Look down. What do you see?" 

I looked down. My feet. The pavement. The grass. The sunlight illuminating the landscape around us. Finally Kelsey saw it. Or rather, she saw three of them, one for each of us. "A shadow." 

"Exactly," said John. "One of the distinguishing qualities of a shadow is that it stretches outward from a person, covering the ground around them. And this happens whether the person wants it to or not. It's unavoidable." 

"Titles act in much the same way. They stretch out in front of you wherever you go, and will be noticed by everyone around you. They affect how everyone views you and the things you oversee. This is a burden that you must carry, and while it may be a joyful burden, it's still a burden. It's inescapable." 

He looked at Kelsey. "You're now the Head Strength Coach. What this means, among other things, is most everything that happens in the facility will be perceived as a reflection of you: how the weights are organized, the level of cleanliness, the training of the staff and interns, how the clients are treated and coached. Even the time you show up for work will be noticed to a greater degree than before." 

He turned to me. "As an elder in your church, people will view everything you do as a reflection your church and what it means to follow Christ. How you speak to others, what your behavior is like when you think no one is looking, what you commit to, how you spend your time. You'll be under a microscope that was never over you before." 

John went on to provide some practical and illuminating examples of how this played out while serving in the military, where, as a general, he was the commanding officer over hosts of individuals at one time. 

His thoughts, words, and behavior all needed to be passed through the interpretive grid of the standards of the office. If there was ever a conflict between his natural impulses and the requirements of his office, there was no question in his mind that he needed to sublimate those impulses into the behavior expected of his position.  


We all cast a shadow


While John's advice may seem obvious to some, I don't think people understand it (and more importantly, act upon it) as much as they think they do.  

It's human nature to miss the boat on the shadow principle in one of two ways. 

First, some folks want to "have their cake and eat it too." They want the prestige, the recognition, or the increase in salary, that come with a particular position, but don't want to carry the responsibility accompanying the title. 

For example, a manager may neglect putting forth the effort of thoroughly training new employees, telling them - explicitly or implicitly - to "just figure it out, I'm too busy to help right now."

Or a C-level executive may instate policies into his or her organization, but yet fail to follow those procedures themselves, be it due to lack of personal discipline or because they feel entitled to act however they wish.  

If any leader expects change to happen in an organization, they must understand that other people will watch how they behave, regardless of if they want them to or not. And change must always start at the top, and work it's way down. People won't follow someone who doesn't practice what they preach. It's all part of their shadow. 

Second, we must realize that we all cast a shadow, even if we don't consider ourselves a "leader." And we have a duty to act in accordance to that shadow. 

If a twenty-three-year-old wants to be treated with respect in their new workplace, then they should behave like the adult they claim to be. If a personal trainer wants their client to follow their nutrition and fitness advice, then they better ensure they're practicing what they preach, following a regular strength training program and not telling their client to adhere to a nutrition protocol that they don't (or wouldn't) follow themselves. 

A coffee barista can be a wonderful reflection of the establishment they represent, by exhibiting stellar customer service and putting every ounce of possible care and attention into the drinks they prepare, regardless of how crappy the rest of their day may be going. 

The same principle applies to mothers, fathers, lawyers, pastors, physical therapists, students, athletes, hobbits, and elves. We all carry a shadow.