Leaders across the sectors are experiencing growing pressures to handle complexity, collaborate with diverse populations, and accept more responsibility for the impacts their organizations have on people and our planet. These increasing demands necessitate transformation of consciousness (i.e., perceptual shifts toward greater complexity and inclusivity) as well as deep inner work associated with surfacing and healing old wounds repressed in the basement of the unconscious (i.e., shadow work).
In his book, “Soul of Leadership,” Deepak Chopra highlighted the necessity for today’s leaders to include shadow work in their developmental plans for success. Chopra’s book is one of the few leadership books that I have read thus far that specifically addressed the critical issue of shadow work in leader self-development and transformation. For example, he cautioned, “Whatever you haven’t faced has power over you. You may set out to do nothing but good, but unless you become conscious of your shadow, the result will be denial. In a state of denial, you will face all kinds of negative effects from the external world, but you will be ill equipped to defeat them. Negativity is defeated only when you can integrate it into the whole fabric of life” (p. 120).
Psychosynthesis, developed by Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974), offers a promising holistic framework to illuminate and instruct a more integrative approach to leader self-development that includes shadow work. Unlike psychoanalysis, the framework acknowledges and integrates a higher unconscious as well as a lower unconscious, middle unconscious, field of awareness, personal self or I, Transpersonal Self, the collective unconscious, and sub-personalities into its model of the human psyche.
In addition to these core elements of psychosynthesis depicted in the model’s “egg diagram” and several other important concepts (e.g., consciousness and will), psychosynthesis includes a dynamic five-stage healing process. Stage zero highlights the predominate stage of humanity characterized by what Assagioli called, the “fundamental infirmity of man.” In their book, Primal Wounding, John Firman and Ann Gila refer to this human condition as “primal wounding,” wounding resulting from not being seen and heard for who we truly are by significant others in our lives. Stage 1 relates to the tuning in of one’s inner experience and the cultivation of greater self-awareness.
Self-awareness is the foundation of all healing and development. Without self-awareness, we tend to react out of habitual responses, or what Firman and Gil refer to as, the survival personality. As self-awareness expands, we start to see all the ways we cause pain and suffering for ourselves and others through our habitual patterns, tendencies, and character flaws. Initially, such self-revelations are painful. However, with ongoing compassionate effort, eventually, the fruits of liberation begin to ripen and provide a sweet taste of what is possible—freedom from the chains that bind us from happiness and fulfillment as well as role efficacy.
Thankfully, numerous modern and ancient practices (e.g., meditation, self-observation, journaling, etc.) offer leaders tools to cultivate greater self-awareness and expand consciousness. Over time, such practices help leaders recognize the physiological, emotional, and mental patterns associated with defensive and unproductive behavior, which allows them to begin disrupting old patterns and creating new, more constructive patterns of being and relating (additional stages include disidentification, contact with the Transpersonal/Highest Self, and listening & responding to the Transpersonal Self).
As highlighted by Chopra and other writers on shadow work (e.g., Shadow Dancing by David Richo), becoming aware of shadow elements with acceptance, nonjudgment, forgiveness and responsibility are essential dimensions of this challenging inner work which may require the support of a therapist, support group, or other reputable process or program. Consequently, a key opportunity (and necessity) for today’s leaders is to employ transformative practices (e.g., meditation–see my essay on mindfulness meditation) to both surface and address shadow issues as well as to expand awareness to more include expansive, inclusive, and complex realities as key dimensions of leader self-development.