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The Shadow of a Leader

A few days ago, I had to pick up a print job at my neighborhood FedEx Kinkos.  The place was jammed with customers, and everyone was hoppin’.  That included the store manager, who was a complete stress case.  He was tight-faced, tight-lipped, and curt with customers and his team.  He wasn’t rude . . . he was just going through the motions.  And, as I noticed, so was everyone on his team.  No one smiled.  No one said “please” or “thank-you.”  Everyone was just moving people through the line with as little personality as possible.  You’ve heard it before:  “I can help the next person.”  Sub-text:  “I can help the next person, but I don’t really want to.”

The scene reminded me of some great leadership development content I learned from the Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group years ago.  I’ve used a lot over the years, and it never gets old.  It’s called “The Shadow of a Leader.”  The idea is that leaders shape their cultures through a powerful combination of message aligned with action.  Through actions, attitudes and messages, they cast a shadow that influences everyone around them.  The shadow a leader casts may be strong and inspiring, or it may be weak and dispiriting, but it always exists.  It is a reflection of everything a leader says and does. 

So, as I watched the FedEx Kinkos team, I noticed they were following their leader, doing as he did, matching his actions and attitude.  Without knowing it, he was setting a powerful example and casting a dispiriting shadow.  It’s that easy to do!  Leaders lead without knowing it.  All they have to do is be themselves, and walk their own talk.  That’s the beauty of leadership, and it’s the burden of leadership.  Your actions speak loudly, and someone is always watching.

Managing your shadow as a leader is a simple matter of awareness and intent.  Here’s a three-step process for better understanding your shadow:

  1. Identify your shadow.  How do your actions, attitudes and messages influence the culture?
  2. Develop a shadow improvement plan.  Once you’ve identified your current shadow, focus on your strengths and figure out how you can use them to improve your shadow.
  3. Share your shadow.  Talk about this concept with your team, and ask them to help keep you on track and casting the shadow that positively influences the work culture.

As Warren Bennis once said, “A leader doesn’t just get the message across, a leader is the message.”

In gratitude for a great lesson learned from my local FedEx Kinkos manager,


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