Last year, a friend was promoted to CEO of a large corporation. Shortly after this promotion, he was at an internal awards lunch for the marketing department. In his usual joking style, he told a young marketing intern that he hoped she had her speech ready for her award. Historically, these award lunches had not required anything from recipients other than a smile for the camera. Acceptance speeches were certainly not on the cards.

As the lunch progressed, the MC announces that the intern has won an award. She gets up, accepts, and breaks all tradition in making a speech.

My friend had just met his shadow.

It was a wake-up call as to how his actions and words were taken on board. He was being his jovial self and not taking things to seriously when he joked about the acceptance speech. She had heard the CEO saying speeches were part of the process – perhaps she heard the tone of a joke, but if her job was on the line, you can understand why she played safe and took him at face value.

This is a great example of the dark side of a leadership shadow.

Senior people have power and influence often beyond their awareness. Much like a shadow, it's hard to get a real solid understanding of the impact of your position when you are high up in a corporate structure. In part, this is because people won't tell you. Being senior is indeed a lonely job.

Not knowing the impact of your shadow is understandable. As you rise through your ranks, you see yourself as being you. As the CIO, you probably don't feel a whole lot different from who you were five or 10 years ago. But with your promotion and change in rank, came a bigger shadow. Your power and influence have people being more circumspect in what they tell you, watching your behavior as a proxy for what is acceptable in the workplace.

There is nothing wrong with having a shadow. This key takeaway is to know your shadow and to be conscious and intentional in your behaviour.

If you are still unsure of how you are impact those around you, take a moment to reflect on these questions:

  • Does your team mirror your workday practice? For example, your response time to emails, timeliness at meetings, responding to emails over weekends. Perhaps you choose to answer email on holiday or a Sunday night as it is an expedient way of keeping on top of the inbox. Be assured your staff think that weekend email is an expected work practice by dint of your behaviour.
  • Who is in the office before you and who leaves after you? Your long days will be seen as expected working office hours?
  • Do you have interactions with staff where you are certain they don't understand the issue, and yet they do not to ask questions?

Mirroring what the boss does is a viable strategy to play safe in the corporate world. So when you choose to work late and come in early, you may well find staff doing similar even if they don't have the need to do so. What you say as a joke will often be taken literally.

Be aware as a leader that your choices about how you work and what you say is being assessed and reviewed by everyone around you all the time and setting the organisation's culture. You aren't just you - you are a leader with a shadow.

It's a call to action to be more mindful of your own working practices for the sake of your team.