The Road Less Traveled

On the frontispiece of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed the aphorism “know thyself”. Polonius’s last piece of advice to his son Laertes is “to thine own self be true”. And Goethe knew the essence of the world cannot be found without turning your attention back upon yourself. This theme of self-awareness runs through most, if not all, of the great wisdom traditions and for good reason.

Self-awareness is often cited as the most important capability for leaders to develop. According to Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux, the authors of “How To Become a Better Leader,” published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, successful leaders know well their natural inclinations and use the knowledge to enhance those inclinations or compensate for them. But what does it mean to be self-aware?

What is Self-awareness?

Simply put, self-awareness is a recognition of the self, with the self being what makes your identity unique. This includes your behavior, thoughts, experiences, and abilities.

Why is this important for a leader?

Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund developed the theory of self-awarenessback in 1972. They purposed the idea of objective self-awareness:

“when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.”

According to C. Otto Scharmer, this boils down to two answering two questions:

1. Who is my self?

2. What is my work?

A study by the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations (2010) suggests self-awareness is a strong predictor of overall success. Awareness of one’s behavior, thoughts, experiences, and abilities―strengths and weaknesses―enables leaders to work with others more effectively. A lack of self-awareness can cause miss understanding and potentially alienate others.

In an HBR article entitled, "Working with People Who Aren’t Self-Aware," Tasha Eurich suggests leaders without self-awareness have several consistent behaviors:

  • They won’t listen to, or accept, critical feedback.

  • They cannot empathize with, or take the perspective of, others.

  • They have difficulty “reading a room” and tailoring their message to their audience.

  • They possess an inflated opinion of their contributions and performance.

  • They are hurtful to others without realizing it.

  • They take credit for successes and blame others for failures.

Having little or no self-awareness has a high potential cause of derailing a leader, thus hurting the leader, direct reports, and ultimately the organization.

Self-awareness is an ongoing process.

Self-awareness is a hard skill to define. May leaders see themselves as being self-aware when they are not. Moreover, it is oft noted by psychologists that those who claim to know themselves the best are often the least the least self-aware. However, there are some things you can do to develop self-awareness:

  • Utilize instruments like TTI’s Trimetrix EQ© Executive to better understand what drives you as a leader and why you lead the way you do.

  • Reflect on your habitual behaviors and the triggers that set them off.

  • Get feedback from a trusted coach or mentor.

  • Identify and learn mitigating behaviors to manage weaknesses. Ensuring they align with your values and priorities.

  • Stay curious about yourself. Developing self-awareness is a process of reflection and learning taking place over years, perhaps a lifetime

Self-awareness is the persistent checking back in with the self to see where you are at and where you want to be. It includes the perception of others and your current strengths and challenges. Where your biases lie and how might you overcome them, so you can see yourself and the world in a more realistic way?

As a leader, self-awareness is empowering because it arms you with the knowledge enabling better relationships, better decisions, and the opportunity to change and grow. And the best part is that you can do this―It’s not about changing who you are, it’s about finding out who you are.

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