top of page

Why Leaders Must Confront Their Shadow… And How To Make It Happen

Written by: Dr. Max Klau, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


We are often not the person we aspire to be. If we’re honest about it, we’re often not the person that we think we are. We may view ourselves as working towards a bold vision for positive change grounded in noble values, but we leave people around us feeling disempowered and diminished. We see ourselves as a light of decency and kindness…but in truth we spread darkness in ways that we don’t fully recognize or understand.

My entire career as a leadership development coach and consultant has been spent in the space of social entrepreneurship and nonprofit leadership. This is a space filled with idealists who are deeply committed to addressing major social challenges and helping others. Again and again, I’ve met individuals who claim to love humanity while treating their fellow humans poorly.

Over time, I’ve arrived at an understanding of what is going on: These are individuals who have not confronted their shadow.

What is the Shadow?

My understanding of the shadow is deeply informed by the insights of psychologist Carl Jung, who used this term to describe the dark, socially unacceptable parts of ourselves that every one of us has, but very often refuse to acknowledge ‒ never mind embrace. Jung explains the shadow this way:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspect of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.

Individuals who have not done the work of confronting their shadow do not really know themselves fully. Jung states that when we haven’t done this work, these dark aspects of the self influence our actions from beyond our conscious awareness. Shadow that is unexamined and unconscious has a remarkable power to impact our lives. Jung states, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Confronting the shadow is a universal human challenge, but it has particular urgency for leaders. Those who step into positions of power and authority access an expanded scope of influence, impacting a wider circle of individuals through their actions and way of being. The more people we impact, the more critical it becomes that we do this deeply personal inner work.

How to Confront the Shadow

As a coach, I’ve arrived at an approach to guiding clients through the work of confronting their shadow. A key insight is that light and shadow are interconnected, so the work of guiding people to access their light and the work of guiding people to confront their shadow needs to be done together. For this reason, I invite clients to craft two mission statements together: The first is a Personal Leadership Mission Statement that articulates their highest aspirations for how they want to be as leaders. The second is a Shadow Mission that challenges them to look clearly at who they are being in the moments when they do not align themselves with their Leadership Mission. The first mission statement is noble and inspiring, while the second is often gut-wrenchingly bleak. It is painful to recognize who we are when we are not our best selves, but the more conscious we become of that way of being, the more power we have to choose light rather than shadow in real-time.

At this point, I’ve shared this exercise with thousands of individuals, and I continue to be amazed at how few people have heard of the shadow, never mind made an effort to confront the shadow within themselves. At this moment when there is so much darkness in the world around us, I believe that this practice is vitally important for anyone seeking to step up to meet this critical moment.

Readers interested in learning more about how to confront their shadow are welcome to visit my website, and download the free resource, the Clarity Essentials Workbook. If you choose to give it a try, I’d love to hear from you!

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Dr. Max Klau, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Max Klau is an Integral Master coach, author, speaker, and consultant based in Boston, Massachusetts. He received his doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2005 with a focus on leadership development. He currently serves as the Chief Program Office at the New Politics Leadership Academy, an organization focused on bringing more servant leaders into politics. His writing about leadership has appeared in Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review and his first book, Race & Social Change: A Quest, A Study, A Call to Action, was published in 2017.



  • linkedin-brainz
  • facebook-brainz
  • instagram-04


bottom of page