• Helen Burt Iain McCormick

Embrace your shadow


Iain McCormick, Partner, Executive Coaching Centre


After many years of executive coaching I am still surprised by the fact that most of us are not really who we seem to be. The majority of successful leaders I work with have a polite, affable manner yet there is a dark, shadow side to them which often includes insecurities, selfishness, entitlement and aggression which they repress and keep well out of sight.

It is frequently a huge relief to the leaders I coach to know that I see the shadow side in almost everyone that I work with and I certainly have my own. Clients feel a strong sense of relief to know that almost all of us have parts of ourselves that we are unwilling to look carefully at.


It is crucial for good leaders to recognise the shadow side of their personality before it becomes problematic, even toxic. A useful exercise it to draw up a list of your best qualities on a whiteboard or computer notepad. Then next to each quality write down the opposite and carefully, bravely consider if this is relevant to you. An example is set out below.


My Best Qualities - My Shadow

Caring - Selfish

Creative - Unimaginative

Hard working - Lazy

Tough - Fearful


A recent client learned a lot about what was holding him back in his career when he was able to acknowledge that he had a selfish, unimaginative, lazy and fearful side that emerged when he was stressed or placed in situations of unproductive conflict. At the start of our coaching sessions he talked a lot about being held back by his manager and his colleagues who were insensitive, jealous of his creativity and unhelpfully competitive. However after being able to understand his shadow side he came to see that his lack of career progress was in large part his own doing. Knowing that his unconscious reaction to stress and conflict was so unhelpful he started to become much more aware of stress building up and dealing with it differently.


By accepting and working with the dark side of his personality he was able to have a more complete picture of himself and to be open and authentic in his dealings with his manager, peers and his team.


Photo credit: Martino Pietropoli


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