Neglecting Your Shadow Could be Your Demise

Napoleon Boneparte (1769-1821) is best remembered for what he represented to those who wrote about him.  Truly, he was a conundrum for scholars and historians alike.  Germain de Staёl, a principal opponent and prolific writer of her time, commented that he was “neither good nor violent, neither gentle nor cruel.  ” Having joined the artillery regiment as a Second Lieutenant at the age of 16 after receiving a commission at the École Militaire in Paris, young Napoleon learned very early the power of persona and reputation.

A courageous image, garnered via a bayonet to the thigh (oh…and the capture of Toulon) catapulted him to Brigadier General at the youthful age of 24.  By 31, he was leading his army towards an overwhelming victory against Austria.  In the battle of Austerlitz, he overcame amazing odds to defeat the Austrian and Russian forces who had amassed against him.  In 1806, he defeated Prussia and immediately set out to conquer Portugal.  His resounding success in the Treatises of Tilsit bolstered his confidence and support.  Riding a high of success and carefully managed reputation leading one of Europe’s most successful empires, he set out in 1812 . . . to invade Russia.

<<pause for dramatic effect>>

Self-Awareness is the fire of knowledge which burns brightly in all of us.  As we let our ego drive us further away from the fire, our shadow lengthens accordingly.

Despite brutally cold conditions, he led his Army forward into the breach of the Russian wilderness.  More than 650,000 men went forward…less than 75,000 came out.  Thus began the spiraling road of reckoning he brought upon himself via hubris.  His final defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 resulted in the end of his Empire along with his exile and imprisonment at St. Helena, where he died (plausibly from arsenic-poisoning) in February 1821.  In the course of his wars, he expended an estimated 2,500,000 men in his pursuit of glory over liberty, self-enthusiasm over revolution.  Over the course of his rule, he managed his image well and to his advantage.  His downfall started when he began to believe his own legend. In short, he lost the ability to manage his shadow and paid a heavy price for it.


Napoleon’s true success came less from his mastery of strategy and more from his knowledge of human nature.  According to Dr. Gemma Betros at Australian National University, Napoleon was a man who’s character was difficult to define—and he was perhaps all the more powerful because of it.  The myth he and his supporters had constructed for him as the “Saviour of France” crumbled when he lost track of his shadow and tried to force an image for himself that didn’t align with his actions.  As a result, Napoleon’s “Ambition and imagination ceased to be tempered by sound judgment and reason.”

All of us are prone to believing our own legend—and each of us must be aware of the shadow we cast.  Carl Jung described the concept of The Persona and The Shadow—our public face (show) versus the portion of ourselves we wish to hide.  Just as we see when we stand close to the fire, the further we move away from the light—the longer our shadow becomes.  Self-Awareness is the fire of knowledge which burns brightly in all of us.  As we let our ego drive us further away from the fire, our shadow lengthens accordingly.

Be true to yourself and your integrity, it’s simpler than you think.

You cast your shadow and your light over your team every day, and your teammates take on the traits you impart upon them as their leader.  Professor Ben Bryant of IMD Business School shares that a leader’s own actions and behavior shape the culture as much, if not more, than any communication, process or structure.  In his book, “Let your Life Speak,” Parker Palmer shares that the shadows leaders cast have severe impacts on behaviors and team results.  Simply put, a leader’s characteristics can betray the team’s success.  As the leader, you have the responsibility to create a culture that encourages innovation.  How are you doing this with your team?

You have a responsibility to avoid Napoleon’s fate—for yourself and your team.  Be aware of your shadow and develop your ability to cast light in your environment.  Better yet, find people in your life you can trust to provide honest feedback and help you manage your shadow.  Shadow-managers point you back to the light and stoke your fire to burn brighter.  Be true to yourself and your integrity, it’s simpler than you think.  Avoid the trap of believing in your own legend.  Waterloo awaits those who fail in this pursuit!


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Image credit: nomadsoul1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Matthew T. Fritz is a leader and mentor in the field of complex organizational change, emotional intelligence, and organization strategy. A successful DoD senior-acquisition program manager and test leader, Matt has earned documented success in the areas of test and evaluation, assessment, technology development and flight operations. He has specialized experience in cost, schedule and performance management and is an active duty Field-Grade Officer with command-experience in the United States Air Force. Matt is also a certified acquisition professional, as well as a certified Emotional Intelligence Trainer/Practitioner. He is the Author of an instructional book entitled, “Leveraging Your LinkedIn Profile for Success” and actively blogs with other military leaders at, as well as his personal blog at He and his wife, Stacy, enjoy life with their daughter and son in New Mexico.

  • Alexandru Amoq


  • Paul Pickard

    Love this – posting it to my LinkedIn feed, and adding “Let Your Life Speak” to my reading list.

  • Scott Mabry

    “In short, he lost the ability to manage his shadow and paid a heavy price for it.” as did those he should have served rather than spent. Great post!

  • Excellent observation–eloquently chosen words, Scott. Thanks for adding to the story. Cheers!

  • Achim Nowak

    Matthew – this is such an inspirational post, so relevant, so spot on. Thank you for stating the shadow-message so exquisitely!

  • AJ Borowsky

    Shining a light in your shadows is about being as curious about yourself as you are about others and being confident enough to be honest with yourself. Your post gave me a lot to think about, Matthew.

  • Michael Shelton

    Great points! We get into trouble when we operate outside of our personal integrity.” Easy to do. Hard to correct.

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