The title may have you believe that I refer to the popular member of X-Men (who by the way is Shadowcat, one word), a new, sinister, back alley, comic villain set to disrupt life in New York City (or the monk life in Tibet if you prefer), or just a kitten roaming the ledges outside your bedroom window at night, at a distance from the street lamp that casts a feline shadow large enough to scare the bejesus out of you. If we let our imagination run wild, shadow cat could also mean an eclipse involving the sun, the moon, and Halle Berry. I have written a few blogs now and none of them have featured my customary ‘pj’ (poor jokes) so I had to put this in here. Anyway, let’s move on.
The term ‘shadow’ to me apart from the mute scary black thing that follows us around, has meant to learn a trade, task, or skill by observing someone else do it. It’s something that can be practiced in any conceivable profession or aspect of our personal lives. Usually, when a fresh recruit arrives at a company, she is asked to ‘shadow’ a more seasoned pro to learn the practical ropes of the trade. We learn not just physical skills like construction, engineering techniques, healthcare delivery, farming, cooking, stealing, tying one’s shoelaces, and stapling a bunch of papers, but also soft skills like negotiating, selling, coaching, manipulating, throwing tantrums, and snoring, by shadowing people that excel at these skills. I believe in learning by doing and observing. In fact, being a big advocate of sport and someone that has played a fair amount in my younger days, I believe shadow practice plays an important part in many sports, especially ones that involve a ball, like cricket, table tennis, and tennis. The idea is to practice one’s technique by observing one’s shadow, without the use of an actual ball. I wish they had this option available during school examinations as well, where we would imagine writing our answers and not have to actually pen them on paper.
Shadowing people through the course of my life has added tremendous impetus and growth to my being. Not only did I draw value by observing leaders at work, veterans on my sports team, seniors at the university, family members, and George W Bush, but also the unsuspecting mentors in my daily life that genuinely made me feel positive and empowered. And that for me has been the key to forming more holistic and sound attributes. A majority of us only look as far as the physical or verbal nature of an art form. We feel that as long as we learn how to build, or program, or repair, or present well by shadowing people, we will become perfect specimens in our professional and personal lives. We feel that mastering skills that appear on a typical job advertisement is what it takes to excel. Providing a big home, fast cars, regular exotic vacations, and material goods, makes us feel like irrefutable success stories in our personal and family lives. Sure, these skills are important but shouldn’t we learn more about the people we shadow, which is every one of essence around us? No matter what our profession is, where in the world we live, what our principles and cultural outlook are, there is one common tie to us all: relationships with other humans.
We pay attention to what our mentors do and how they do it but rarely dwell deep into why they do it. We spend little time understanding the man or woman behind the machine. We see everything our eyes show us but very little of the unseen that our mind is capable of perceiving. We want to learn a skill quickly and be one of the top dogs as soon as possible but we fail to grasp the essence of being a leader. We misconstrue a designation for the position of a leader. A leader is made not only on her superlative abilities to deliver results, fluent communication, great decision-making skills, commitment to the cause, brilliant creativity, or the ability to create irresistible strategies. A leader is also made on her abilities to gain the trust of others by being inspirational and not by power or authority. She flourishes by her facility to understand people and empathize with them. She is respected by being accountable for problems and sharing the credit for success. And she is an indomitable leader when she can stimulate those around her to act beyond their own needs. To be able to do this, it’s not only important to know what people can do, but also who they are.
When we observe to learn and grow it seems almost selfish in nature. As long as we derive whatever value we can to help ourselves, we don’t feel the need to look beyond. Almost every candidate I have interviewed for a job has spoken about how they would want to learn and grow, but rarely has one spoken about the contribution they would like to make. We learn as much from giving as we do from taking. By giving, we understand the true extent of our intent and abilities that take us beyond the threshold for success we create in our minds. So even if it’s for purely self-oriented reasons, understanding people and contributing to their growth will, in turn, promote ours to new heights. When we observe (and I don’t mean going around being the peeping tom in your locality) with empathy and the intent to understand people it becomes innate over time and we become better leaders and humans.
Shadowing fills us with knowledge but eventually stepping out of the shadows to make contributions beyond the self rewards us with wisdom, courage, and inspiration.
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