Mary Abiodun’s thoughts … The leadership shadow for startup leaders


According to NFX, leading a startup is 10 times tougher than leading a standard company. This is because of the uncertainties that come along with building a startup and the need to often change direction.

NFX says that “Leadership is harder to master than management. It takes soft skills and big-picture thinking. But it’s also harder because the best leaders lead by example. It all starts with you. You’re the CEO, you’re the inspiration. You’re the one people look at. You have to become the type of person that you’d want leading yourself — the type of person who you would willingly follow”.

Agents of Change defines shadows as those untamed emotions and behaviours that lie, largely unconscious, beneath the surface of our lives – and inform everything we do.

“Culture is the shadow of the leader.” – Larry Senn, author of Winning Teams, Winning Cultures. (quote).

As much as the leadership shadow is about what you say or do as a leader, it is also a way to measure the level of influence that a leader has on others. The leadership shadow involves the words, actions, attitudes and behaviour of a leader together with how these elements affect or are reflected in the behaviour, demeanour and work culture of a startup.

A startup is a small organization that usually starts with a minimum of two people (the founder and the co-founder in most cases). Startup CEOs which could be any one of these two people needs to cast a shadow that will be reflected when more people come on board. Because of how powerful the leadership shadow is, leaders of companies continue to reflect their shadow even when they are long gone and their businesses have transcended many generations. That is why the leadership shadow is really very important.

Your words and actions as a leader can break or mar your startup. Actions are louder than words and people will imitate what you do more than what you ask them to do.

Are you that leader that doesn’t have respect for people’s time by coming late to meetings? Do you like to overwork your employees till they are lacking vigour, vitality and productivity? How do you address one single employee before the others? Do you treat them the way you would want to be treated? Are you acting in the best interests of everyone? Do your priorities show that you have taken everyone into consideration before making your final decisions?

These questions are important and the more honest startup leaders answer to these, the more they get self-aware to understand what their leadership shadow looks like.

As a leader, your words, actions, attitudes and behaviour impact on those around you. That impact is your “shadow,” which influences the culture of your organization. – Champions for Change

What makes up a leader’s shadow?

The Global Women Leadership Shadow model breaks the leader’s shadow into four major elements:

  1. Speech: How is your message getting across? Is it being heard and understood? Are you connecting your understanding of diversity and inclusion with your organisation’s strategy and values?
  2. Actions: Do your actions back up your words? Do you model inclusiveness in a way that is visible to the wider team? Is your top team gender-balanced?
  3. Priorities: Are you taking steps to eliminate bias? What policies, such as flexible working and hiring changes, have you put in place?
  4. Measurement: Has your organisation set targets for achieving greater gender balance? Are senior managers accountable for Diversity & Inclusion results?

Erik de Haan in his article, The leadership shadow: How to recognise and avoid derailment, hubris and overdrive, gave four (4) advice in the leadership shadow for executives:

  • Keep the process of leading, fluid, and be open to (sometimes painful) upwards feedback from within the organisation.
  • Keep leadership practice healthy and balanced, and be open to (sometimes painful) upwards feedback from your own shadow side.
  • Be as relational as possible by nurturing relationships: leading not in the abstract and not just indirectly, but here and now with other leaders and stakeholders.
  • Engage in active and honest (self-) reflection.

In conclusion, building a lasting work culture starts with you and your shadow is as important as you. Your shadow is you but only in silhouette.

>>>The writer is an Entrepreneur-In-Training at the Meltwater Entrepreneurship School of Technology. She is a tech enthusiast who believes that with tech, we can solve most of the world’s problems. She is interested in building and supporting tech businesses. When she is not organizing tech events, she is an instructor training kids, youths and girls on how to code. She can be reached via Email: [email protected]

Leave a Reply