You da man! (whether you like it or not)

Once upon a time (1993), back when Charles Barkley was known better as a professional basketball player and not an analyst with a bad golf swing, he famously declared that athletes shouldn’t be role models.  Nike even made a commercial about it.  And while many people agreed with the underlying point the Round Mound of Rebound was making, the comment left a bad taste in the mouths of the public because the reality is that it doesn’t matter if you WANT to be a role model – sometimes you just are.

It’s the same for leaders.  You may think you were hired for your business acumen, or your ability to set a vision for the company and produce results.   Okay, you’ve got me there – you were hired for those reasons.  But there is another line in your job description that may or may not be explicitly stated.  As Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility.  And that responsibility is  to be a role model to your organization.


This idea – “the shadow of the leader” –  has been around for a long time, but was first studied in business organizations in Larry Senn’s 1970 doctoral dissertation (and his company Senn Delaney is still rocking the concept).    Remember when you were a kid and you used to dress up like a super hero?  Employees are kind of like that kid – they emulate the people they look up to, or who have control over them.

Here’s another way to think of it:

Think of a family tradition that has been passed down generation after generation.  It might be a phrase that everyone uses, a certain way you cook something, game night, anything. For example, when I make a pizza, I always cut it into squares.  Why?  Because that’s the way my dad always did it.  There is no real reason to cut a pizza into squares – in fact, some would argue it’s very inefficient.  But that’s how pizza was cut in my house, and so that’s how I cut it.

In your organization, you’re the one cutting the pizza into squares.

The leader of an organization casts a shadow that influences the group culture.  This shadow may be weak or powerful, but it always exists.  Whole organizations often take on aspects of the personality of a strong leader (think Apple, Microsoft, Southwest, Virgin, etc.).  It’s not so much that leaders force their style and values on others, but that employees tend to look upwards for clues as to what is important, how to get ahead in the organization, and how to fit in.

This is the power of the shadow in action – the power to shape and influence the character of an organization.  Do you know what kind of shadow you’re casting?

One of the best things about the shadow of the leader is that you have the power to control it – you can take specific actions that will help you cast the shadow you want in order to create the culture you want.  Below are some questions you can answer to help you be the leader you want people to emulate:

  • What are the elements of your shadow, both strengths (things you like) and challenges (things you dislike)?
  • What values, beliefs, and standards are in place within your organization because of these elements? Is that what you want?
  • What behaviors are you seeing in your employees as a result of these elements? Do you like them?
  • What elements of your shadow come from your desire to emulate a leader you had at one time?  Did you mean to make that choice?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you are ready to create an action plan for change, thereby taking control of your shadow.  Complete these sentences to create your action plan:

  • The elements I want to change in my shadow are…
  • It’s important to change this behavior because…
  • I will monitor my behavior by…
  • I will know I’ve been successful when…

If you don’t like the shape of your shadow, change it.  If you don’t like the shadow of the person above you, step out of it and create your own.  Whatever you do, be mindful of your actions – because (despite what Sir Charles might think) people are copying what you do, whether you like it or not.

We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen.  Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.

– Karl Malone (well said, Karl!)

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