Reaching the Shadow: Accurately Framing Context as a Transformative Leader

Influential leaders speak to the shadow selves of their audiences just as directly as they speak to the acknowledged conscious selves of their audiences. The shadow parts of the self are parts we have learned to bury. Shadows are what enculturation has taught us are shameful, weak, humiliating, parts of our selves (Carl Jung).

Shadows are the opposite of that with which we seek to identify. Successful leaders know their own shadows and those of the audience they influence, oftentimes and unfortunately better than the audience know themselves.

Think of the scene in Braveheart when Mel Gibson rouses the fighting spirit of his men with war paint on his face, riding his horse back and forth in front of them, shouting to them about resistance and bravery and freedom.

He is speaking words of courage and sacrifice. His words speak to the highest best selves acknowledged openly and proudly by his audience. On the face of it he is appealing directly to their preferred identities – the parts of themselves with which they want desperately to identify.

But listen to the meaning of the words in the context of the audiences’ experience. How do they speak to the shadow selves of the audience? The literal words we hear with our ears speak of freedom and dignity and bravery and sacrifice. But the shadow identities of his audience hear the potential for shame, humiliation, slavery, cowardice, impotence.

In contemporary times we hear a similar call and similar identity triggers in the form of “taking our freedom” as it applies, for example, to wearing a mask in public. Some of us interpret masking requirements as an attempt to save lives and others of us interpret required masking as an attempt to take our freedom. Why the difference?

Why are the same words, the same facts, interpreted so differently even by the same native language speakers in the same country? Part of the answer lies in the opposite of what is articulated.

To understand the effect of words, even untrue words, on an audience, we need to pay attention to what is implied by non-literal meaning, audience identity context, and shadow triggers.

Meaning is determined, in part, by the context within which the language has reference. If, for example, I am from Japan but speak fluent English and am speaking to an American English speaker, I may not understand certain jokes despite my English fluency. That is because jokes often rely on innuendo and the innuendo is familiar to native speakers because of shared cultural experience, beyond mere shared language. It is the context of the words, not the literal words, that communicate on a different level – that of humor, innuendo, implication – both acknowledged and unacknowledged.

The same is true of micro-cultures within national cultures. Nations the world over are experiencing a failure of micro-cross-cultural communication within their own borders. Those of us who don’t share the same experiential context of the target audience of influential leaders just hear the words. We may think the words are wrong, counter-factual, silly, or dangerous. But it is a mistake to dismiss the words without understanding what they mean for the audience. And it is a mistake to try to counter those words with facts because facts can’t counter meaning.

When we don’t understand why influential leaders impact audiences with untruths that is because our own interpretation does not incorporate the context in which the words have meaning for the audience. And then we are incredulous at the effect on the audience – the effect of what we hear as lies or distortions.

We are incredulous because we are not registering the effect of the context of those words on the shadow selves of the target audience. That is what we need to understand. And that is what we ourselves need to speak to if we want to influence the same audience.

How do we influence the behavior of an audience whose context is alien to us? First, we get as familiar as possible with their context and the way their context determines meaning. Then we get familiar with their identity layers including the unconscious parts. Then we provide a larger context, one that overrides and swallows up the context they’ve been interpreting within. It is not a matter of reframing. It is a matter of out-framing, over-framing, providing a larger frame within which the previous frame still exists but is imbued with alternative meaning in a larger context provided by the leader.

A leader who wants to benefit from the negative elements of human nature will activate the shadows of his audience and stop there. He will let the shadows run amuck. But even a leader who wants to inspire an audience to behave according to their highest ideals cannot ignore the shadow aspects of himself or his audience. He has to lead with all his parts and he has to address all the parts of his audience including the shamed parts, the fearful parts, the alienated parts. He acknowledges the parts that the audience might not. By doing so he takes away the power of the negative, brings it out into the light, and transforms it.

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Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is Founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, affiliate faculty of the Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Professor, Global Security, Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and the forthcoming Plato’s Fear.

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