I grew up in Philadelphia. As a college student, I got arrested in State College for peeing in public so I remember the town well. Penn State grew bigger than life as I was growing up. It was known for tailgating parties before the football games and, though many didn’t know much about the university, they knew about the football.

Now we know Penn State for having ruined a party. The party of letting sports programs dominate academic institutions. What Penn State may become famous for is exhibiting our shadow side.

A shadow is a part of you that you would rather not look at or “own” so you repress it, deny it exists and in the process its power and influence over your life grows–your ability to see or control your shadow increases the more you stuff it in your unconscious.

There is a golden side and a dark side to a shadow. For example, pedophiles have a shadow and the more they deny their urge or keep their attractions secret because they feel ashamed of themselves, the more likely they will act out and not seek help or support. They may prey on someone and not even be conscious they are doing it or not not see any harm in doing it. After a while our shadow controls us and without anyone around to point it out to us, our shadow will continue to control our lives and we will become blind and numb to its influence.

Meanwhile, there may be some wonderful qualities that get disowned and wrapped up in our shadow. It’s different for everyone, but I am guessing that for a pedophile (many of whom have been molested themselves) their heart, innocence and vulnerability have long been stuffed into their shadow side.

We spend our lives compensating for our shadows. If we are insecure we climb the corporate ladder, build power and try to convince ourselves and others we are powerful and often abuse power in the process. If we question our attractiveness we show off in order to be seen or we get small assuming no one is interested. We inflate or deflate as a result of our shadow.

We blame everything and everyone around us for the results of our shadow behavior–“This is not about me!”

Another word for shadow is blind spot. It’s something that develops not just with individuals but with collectives. The collective behavior that gave rise for the need for Civil Rights laws is a good example.

We all have a shadow. All teams, organizations, and cultures have shadows. Too much of something, too much zeal, too much patriotism, too much unquestioned passion for a position or value that blocks the ability to see the big picture or see the other side of an issue are all warning signs that a shadow is at play. The lack of compromise in politics reflects disowned shadows.

For the Penn State situation they get the painful prize for winning the shadow award for 2011:

  • Right in the middle of a manly sport where men are supposed to be tough there is a man who is fondling young boys.
  • An entire university built for the purpose of academic growth becomes dominated a money-making or business aspect side of the institution.
  • A man who catches his colleague doing something he is not supposed to be doing gives up his power and chooses to say little or nothing.
  • Students worship a man who, after he is fired for not reporting a crime or at least predation on innocent kids, students defend him and take issue with those holding him accountable.
  • Joe Paterno, like Tiger Woods, was famous, powerful and a man who people projected their hero-worshipping. That was a lot to take and the inflation that resulted made Joe put himself above the law and most likely his own core values.
  • The role of football at Penn State grew too important, too big, too sacred, inscrutable cow and the cause of a big blind spot.
  • Many men gave up their personal power when they didn’t report Sandusky’s behavior–in the process they showed how weak some part of them was. I include in this group the university president who, at the moment, is still in his position. The only explanation for that is that he was so important compared to Paterno no one really cares about him.

So what to do now?

I think Penn State should try life with a few weekends without football, just to reflect, to regain perspective. Given I don’t think that’s happening any weekend soon, I think the Penn State situation can serve as a wake-up call to look at our own shadows. Especially as leaders.

Where are you either abusing or giving up power in your life? When are you justifying what you are doing instead of speaking up or otherwise being true to yourself and your core values?

What is your shadow? What are you defensive about or unwilling to challenge about your life, your beliefs. What is your blind spot? My guess is you may have to look around to find the answer to this. Your kids and wife won’t tell you what your real shadow is – they are too invested in it. Who will tell you that you need a breath mint, that you are self-sabotaging or that you are the source of the problem you are convinced lies elsewhere.

I’m going to turn off the TV for a while and look at my shadow. There is a Paterno or Sandusky in some form that lives inside of me and I don’t want to deny this so much that I take a big tumble over my shadow.