Become a Self-Aware Leader

This week I overheard two employees lamenting the behaviour of their boss. “Why is she like that?” one asked the other. “She doesn’t know she is,” the other wisely replied. The irony is that self-awareness is touted by business schools as one of the most important facets of great leadership. Corporately, self-awareness tops the list of competencies being used to choose and groom leaders.


So what is self-awareness – and most importantly – how does one get it? Here are a few considerations.


§         Self-awareness – the kind that helps you be a better leader – is not just about knowing things about yourself. Let’s face it, by the time you’ve hit 40 or 50 years with yourself, you’ve noticed some consistencies. Be wary of being too confident concerning your accuracy with self-awareness. Saying: “I always do this…” or “In this situation I will do that…”  causes you to pay less attention to the situation. Sometimes such self-disclosure is a defensive way to let others know what to expect; as well as a subtle admonition, “Don’t try to change me, this is who I am.” This kind of self-awareness is defeating because it makes it harder to change. It’s like admitting you are already done growing, and gives people the impression you are not open to improvement or influence.


§         Self-awareness doesn’t happen because you participate in a 360 degree assessment survey. Often these tools further imbed your inaccurate notion of how you lead. The people who are asked to contribute are usually your boss, your staff and your peers – none of whom have an emotionally neutral relationship with you. Arrogant people over-rate themselves, and may be undervalued by others for balance. If you are emotionally defensive you often get inconsistent feedback. Some people are kindly protective of you, while some take advantage of the confidentiality of the instrument to let you have it. When feedback is given, it’s hard to accurately know what incidents or behaviour triggered the assessment. All this can make the survey feedback more confusing and unhelpful.


§         Self-awareness for better leadership is about three things: First, the ability to hold an objective and realistic view of yourself. Secondly, to be able to fairly assess your impact on others, including seeing what they see. And, finally, being able to make conscious choices about your behaviour in order to align it with what your beliefs and standards are. This is different than reacting as you always have. It’s about consciously acting – sometimes in new ways. This means self-aware leaders have a desire to develop and grow to become more effective.


§         The first step in increasing self-awareness is to learn to observe yourself. This can make you feel self-conscious and vulnerable, especially when you begin to compare your behaviours and thoughts to your internal standards and models of “goodness” or “rightness.” Annoyingly, when first becoming self-aware, you will see many things that don’t match with these mental models. So, you know you are becoming more self-aware when you begin to feel humble and even conflicted.


§         Observe yourself first in regularly occurring events and commonplace situations.  Start with a team meeting, a project meeting or a client meeting. Watch yourself when you drive, when you take a coffee break, or when you grocery shop. Compare and contrast how you are. Are you a different person with different stakeholders? What behaviours by others trigger a reaction in you? What assumptions do you operate from? How often do you think you know what you are doing, and later are surprised by your unintentional impact? Keep a journal of what you notice and see if you recognize trends over time.


§         Before you go into a meeting, look in a mirror. Keep a hand mirror in your desk for this purpose. Looking at yourself actually creates the awareness that you are a separate person. Look in it as you are on the phone and on email and watch yourself as you react. Sometimes it is a shock to see ourselves from outside our own heads. This can wake you up if you have been moving through the day on auto-pilot. You can also sit in a restaurant in a seat facing the mirror wall. In a similar way, doing a few light physical exercises (toe touches, knee bends, stretching) can also remind you about your physical presence.


§         Tape a conversation and listen to it. (Be sure you have the other person’s permission to do this). When you listen back to the tape, notice how much of what you said is a surprise to you. Do you hear words you didn’t plan to say? Do you repeat some points or stay longer on some topics? Listen to the tone of voice and how you react to the other person. See how fast your responses appear. Observe yourself as a stranger might.


§         Finally, rather than rely on annual assessment tools or anonymous surveys, relax your defensive stanch and bravely ask your staff and peers to give you feedback. Specifically, ask them to point out disparities between what you say and what you do. Make it safe for them to tell you. A steady dose of timely feedback will not only increase your level of self-awareness, but your openness to it will also increase their trust and admiration for you as a leader.



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