The Shadow Side: How Crisis Can Bring Out the Best––and the Worst–– in Leaders

     A magnifying glass has been held up to all leaders over the last few months. How will they respond to the worldwide crisis of COVID-19? The magnifying glass has illuminated a great deal of good—a high degree of creativity and innovation—that is to be sincerely applauded and propelled. But a closer look reveals a more complex story.

     In the midst of crisis, leaders felt the weight of pressure to innovate and let go of the safety of the old normal. They adapted to the changing landscape, adapted some more and worked hard to create a future for their ventures that will hopefully be even better than the past. 

     As a result of all of this, many leaders have been operating in a state of something we call “compression fatigue.” Compression fatigue is the experience of being squeezed by pressure and stress to the point that our self-protective mechanisms are weakened. 

     Sometimes it’s not until life presses in and we get knocked out of the utopias we’ve built that we find ourselves in an undefended position, no longer able to hide or suppress the shadow side of our successful leadership that we don’t want anyone to see. Sometimes it’s not until the moment our reserves are gone that we see a part of ourselves show up that we didn’t even know was there.

     In other cases, we see a side of ourselves show up that we thought we’d put behind us long ago. And sometimes it takes just the right conditions to expose something hiding deep within that just doesn’t show up in any other circumstances. Out-of-character anger, impatience and gruffness, taking liberty to drink as much as you feel like or a compulsive desire to control things might all show up as unexpected companions as compression fatigue sets in. 

     The magnifying glass of crisis has exposed both the best and worst of leaders. 

     Many leaders who are saying “I’m exhausted,” “I’ve had enough,” or “I just can’t make one more decision” are trying to rid themselves of compression fatigue by looking for the top ten strategies to lessen stress and manage anxiety. While those skills are worthwhile and good, they offer an incomplete response. 

     Leaders need to be challenged with a much deeper and more powerful task: Look through the magnifying glass being held up to your heart and face your shadow side. Leaders must embrace this opportunity to rise to their next level by using the valuable information being revealed about their hearts as a tool to grow. 

     An article titled “Is Your Emotional Intelligence Authentic or Self-Serving?” by Ron Carucci, in Harvard Business Review (May 23, 2018), gives us a powerful wake-up call and exposes the reality that even leaders who look good on the outside may have the wrong motivations on the inside. Carucci writes, “It’s possible to fake emotional intelligence. Similar to knockoffs of luxury watches or handbags, these are emotions and actions that look like the real thing but really aren’t. With the best of intentions, I’ve seen smart leaders charge into sensitive interactions armed with what they believed was a combination of deep empathy, attuned listening and self-awareness but was, in fact, as a way to serve their own emotional needs. It’s important to learn to spot these forgeries, especially if you’re the forger.” 

     Paul leads a growing non-profit that has been on the rise for the last three years. As he looked through the magnifying glass, he found out that he was forging humility. He’s quickly become a known face of hope and promise in his community. After a couple months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with donations down 60 percent and uncertainty of whether bail-out grants were going to come through, Paul saw things come out of him that he wasn’t used to, such as anger and defensiveness. He didn’t like the look of anger on himself, and he was ashamed to admit it because it was inconsistent with who he thought he was. Not to mention, it felt so immature. 

     Instead of just trying to get some time off to shake it off or pretend his anger wasn’t there, Paul wisely got curious and looked through the magnifying glass. As he looked below the surface, what he discovered was that his pride was hit. He’d taken so much pleasure in the quick rise of his non-profit and the way he’d been embraced as an exemplary leader in the community. Now it felt like he was at risk of losing all of that because, no matter what he was trying, he just seemed to be failing in ensuring the financial viability of his organization.

     As he felt more insecure and more ashamed, anger and defensiveness became the outward expression he couldn’t seem to stop. Paul had to face his pride in order for true humility to carry him through a season of “I can’t fix it” and “I don’t understand.” Rather than self-sufficiency, trust and hope had to lead his way. That’s where humility was fully authentic for Paul. 

     COVID-19 didn’t create your shadow side, but it may have brought it to the surface. What is the magnifying glass being held up to your heart exposing about you? What you find may not be all that pretty, but it's well worth looking as it’s the key you need to rise to your next level of leadership. 

     Get curious about your heart. Let down your defenses, your need to look “put-together,” and your fear of weakness. What is it within you that looks functional and adaptive on the surface, but may have the wrong motivation? Perhaps your facade of being a servant-leader is really driven by a need to feel good about yourself, rather than a true compulsion to serve. Perhaps your facade of decisiveness and clear vision is really driven by a need to be in control of people and outcomes at all times, rather than a representation of strong discernment. 

     As you look through the magnifying glass, what you see are the clues that can help you begin to tell the story of your heart. This is a story of your deepest meanings, your identity, your worldview and your guiding lessons in life. It’s a story that has been marred by broken people and broken experiences, leaving you with unhealthy motivations and unhealthy strategies for living and leading. 

     Your story within may need some editing in order for you to live and lead authentically and wholeheartedly. Your heart may need to rid itself of some pride, insecurity, fear or shame. It may need to reorient itself to a new name to call yourself. It may need to see others with potential for good again. It may need a host of other healing that will help it relax and find its way into a place where your outward leadership isn’t forced, faked, or shallow. 

     The story of your heart writes the story of your leadership.  Don’t get stuck acting like you’re emotionally intelligent, humble or confident. Edit the story of your heart so you can actually be what will lead your team into a bigger, better and greater future. 


This article was extracted from Issue 2 (Summer 2020) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.



This article was written by John Walker and Charity Byers



Dr. John Walker and Dr. Charity Byers lead Blessing Ranch Ministries (blessingranch.org), a resource and renewal center for Christian leaders. As father/daughter team of psychologists, they invest in leaders through a blend of psychology and theology with the intent of helping leaders to live well, lead well, and finish well. They are the authors of the upcoming book, Bigger, Better, Greater which teaches a tangible pathway of change that unlocks the greater potential waiting inside of us.


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