Follow the Leader: Why Cultivating Your Leadership Shadow is Key

How can a leader influence worker behavior from afar? The key is in demonstrating subtle and significant behaviors that you want to see reflected back. Research indicates that the human propensity to mimic presents an opportunity to affect change by example.

Dr Andrew Sharman, Director of the Leadership & Safety Culture programme at CEDEP, suggests the ‘Leadership Shadow’ as a means to guide others, even remotely.

Human beings are not only social creatures; we also share a well-documented tendency toward ‘unconscious mimicry’, the inclination to adopt the mannerisms, postures and behaviors of those around us. Researchers have found that humans spontaneously adopt others’ behaviors, even while focused on a task at hand. In one experiment, subjects adopted the face-touching and foot-tapping behaviors of another person present while describing a task or drawing a picture (Chartrand and Bargh 1999).

In the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, most leaders do not have the opportunity to be in in the same room with their coworkers. While some OSH professionals have continued to visit work sites, many have had to find ways to lead teams successfully when tens, hundreds or thousands of miles separate them. This predicament offers a considerable challenge, but also an opportunity: How can we lead remotely, effectively?

Take a moment to notice in your next virtual meeting if everyone’s video is on or if everyone’s video is off. Is the chat box lively or empty? Organizations, departments and teams develop their own unspoken rules that govern these behaviors nearly uniformly.

Who is the most likely to set these cultural norms? The leader, naturally.

While “follow the leader” may be embedded in our consciousness early on as a nursery-school game, rare are the leaders that allow the wisdom of this deceptively simple concept to follow them into their career.

“Most leaders simply tell workers what to do. Some tell them how to do stuff. Very few leaders take the time to show them not only what and how to do, but why it is important,” explains Dr Andrew Sharman, organizational psychologist and Director of the Leadership & Safety Culture programme at CEDEP, the European Centre for Executive Development, on the Fontainebleau campus, France.

Herbert Heinrich’s research from 1952 has shown that more than 90 percent of workplace accidents are related to some aspect of human behavior. Thus, a leader’s behavior can have a strong impact on worker behavior—and even has the potential to chip away at the occurrence of behavior-related workplace accidents. Leaders can tap into the upside of the human propensity to mimic: to demonstrate the positive qualities they would like to see reflected. If done consistently and convincingly, this behavior can have reverberations throughout the organization.

“During the pandemic, I’ve been drawn to the idea of the Leadership Shadow,” says Dr Sharman, “which offers us a way to affect behavior and culture change remotely. While we may not be able to be physicially in the room or at the work site, the shadow concept allows that the influence of the leader can be far-reaching; it is the culture that they leave in their wake.”

These behaviors can be subtle or dramatic: leaders asking how everyone’s day was usually elicits a question in kind. More consequentially, leaders eschewing short-cuts, demonstrating transparency, and holding themselves to high standards inspires like behavior in the rest of the organization’s workforce.

 “First, there needs to be someone with the courage to stand up and show what needs to be done,” says Dr Sharman. “Then they repeat the demonstration, as the first few followers join, and provide encouragement. Eventually, the followers are being followed, and they become leaders.”

As a leader, you have the opportunity to demonstrate optimal behavior, even if physical interaction is rare. If you want to see engagement, turn on your video and participate in the chat box conversation. If you want collaboration, ask workers what existing OSH practices they think need to be tailored to the changed work environment. Demonstrate active listening. Then, observe the followers that become leaders in your shadow.

Are you motivated to learn innovative and actionable ways to lead more effectively from afar?

CEDEP’s Leadership & Safety Culture Programme explores how leaders can affect behavior change through a better understanding of human behavior and pschology. The CEDEP curriculum is taught by experts in the fields of organizational psychology, neuropsychiatry, human mental patterns and decision-making.

Immerse yourself in a new dimension of thought leadership that mixes cutting-edge science and research with deep experience and practical application, to help you create an inherent ‘culture of care’ that changes your workplace.

For more information, contact Muriel Pailleux, CEDEP Sales, Marketing & Communication Director at  

Dr Andrew Sharman is best-selling author of ten books on safety leadership and organizational culture, President of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (2019-2020) and and Founder and Chairman of the One Percent Safer Foundation. He is a professor at CEDEP and Director of the Leadership & safety Culture Programme.

Published in IOSH Magazine click here

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