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. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She 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. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes in the role of identity in behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. Maan is also influenced by Jacques Derrida as well as Michel Foucault, as referenced in her article “Post-Colonial Practices and Narrative Nomads: Thinking Sikhism Beyond Metaphysics” (227). After establishing herself through her work on internarrative identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, further examines the role of narrative and power. Her work was also the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of internarrative identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has also been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience. In September of 2015, Maan began work on Narrative Strategies, an online blog dedicated to the application of strategic narrative to international affairs. That project formed the basis for a consultancy group of the same name, uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world. ​ ​

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