Sometimes I think American ideas about leadership are relentlessly optimistic. We believe that authenticity guarantees meaningful success, and we tell the story that visionary leaders are heroes who muster the stamina to fail and rise again, better than they were. We celebrate creative followers for taking risks that make the world better. But we rarely talk about the shadow of that heroism — the pain and loss that inevitably comes from leading transformation.
We tell real stories about real heroes to support our vision for transformational leadership and followership. And yes, those stories inspire us to be better leaders. But sometimes I think we ignore the cost of leadership failures, and try to forget the pain from visionary risks.
Certainly, heroes exist, and there’s something to be said for telling a story of triumph about the journey they had to take. Somehow it makes our struggles easier, celebrating triumphs, remembering, like women who have given birth, all the delights that made labor pains worthwhile. In the adrenaline of that story, we can all imagine we are capable of being superheroes.
But ignoring the shadow means ignoring the price of the transformational ticket, at our peril. Heroic authenticity requires that we claim both the light and shadow of our stories.
Jacquelyn Small, LCSW, explains the importance of the shadow in psychological terms:
“The shadow is our “dark side.” It acts out for us all those denied emotions and urges we wish we didn’t have. If we insist on always being kind and loving for all the world to see, it will express our other side by sometimes taking over and harshly misbehaving. It is an emotion-based self, slippery and hard to catch. Its sacred purpose in our transformation is to remind us of our emotional unfinished business, of what we’re trying to skip over or leave behind. Jung called it “our sparring partner,” the opponent who exposes our flaws and sharpens our skills.”
Repressing the shadow side of heroic leadership contributes to burnout, self-destruction, and martyrdom. We have to deal with the pain of failure in order to rise up to lead differently. Optimism drives us forward and inspires followers to step up. But optimism alone is not enough when we are suffering and need to grieve and heal.
Of course, Volkmann and Hill’s cartoon can be interpreted in many ways. But what I see is a valiant and possibly fatal heroism, a leadership trauma. If we survive our failures, and move into new ways of being, thinking, and knowing ourselves and the world, it’s because we heal the injuries before we celebrate the triumph of transformation.
Otherwise , the optimistic pedestal becomes a slippery cliff, and our sacrifices overwhelm our achievements. If we’re going to live the hero’s story, we need to acknowledge the shadow of that leadership journey, embracing and expressing the considerable growing pains of failing forward in order to avoid the very real failure of leadership visionaries — the point of no return.
Beyond leadership PTSD or burnout, the point of no return is the moment when our resilience itself fails, because we have not been willing to face our wounds, stuck as we are in a story that requires us to be cheerful superheroes.