Why is Self-awareness Important for Leadership
While preparing to write this piece, I noticed that most of the books and articles I looked at opened with the theme of how complex, changeable and demanding the world has become. Leaders who aren’t able to continuously cope with and adapt to this environment are likely to find it harder to succeed.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is increasingly being held up as vital to navigating this ever-changing landscape. And a cornerstone of EQ is self-awareness 1. While there is evidence of a link between self-awareness and overall leadership, 2 3 the relationship is complex.
So, what is self-awareness? It involves reflecting the degree to which we are in touch with our physiology, feelings and intuitions 1. It's also about recognizing how these feelings affect our performance, the extent to which we recognize our own strengths and weaknesses 4 and how aware we are of our impact on other people. As leaders become more attuned to these areas, they're more able to change their behavior in the moment and optimize their effectiveness.
Self-awareness is both an inner awareness and an awareness of how we show up, and do we do so in a way that enables others to show up? Also, as self-awareness can be developed, it seems helpful to think of it as a process rather than a fixed attribute.
Pretty simple right? Not so, unfortunately.
In research involving nearly 5000 participants, Eurich and colleagues found that most people believed they were self-aware. Only 10-15% of their sample actually fit the criteria 5. Another of their findings was that experience and power can hinder self-awareness. The more powerful the leader, the more likely they were to overestimate their skills and abilities. And the less comfortable people felt giving them constructive feedback.
In my experience of working with many different senior leaders, I have sometimes observed a subconscious “everyone around me needs to change” effect when interactions aren’t working or styles are clashing. Coaching and using psychometric tools (such as the MBTI® assessment) can help them better understand their style and the potential gap between how they see themselves and how others might experience them.
Eurich and colleagues found that those who were able to improve their external self-awareness (understanding how others view us) did so by gathering feedback from people who had their best interests in mind and were willing to tell them the truth 5.
They also found that the kinds of questions individuals were asking themselves when introspecting affected levels of self-awareness. Asking “why” questions (Why did I get such a bad rating?) tended to invite unproductive negative thoughts. In contrast, asking “what” questions (What specifically did I do that could have contributed to that rating?”) helped people stay objective and able to learn from the experience and move to solutions.
When I read this, I found myself making parallels between the above and the idea of a Fixed versus a Growth Mindset6. When people operate from a Fixed Mindset they tend to view basic qualities and attributes (such as intelligence or abilities) as being fixed and somewhat finite. Those adopting a Growth Mindset tend to believe that abilities can be developed through hard work and perseverance. Consider for a moment, the difference in effect of “I can’t do that” versus “I can’t do that yet”.
A Growth Mindset also brings with it an empowering and liberating approach to failure and errors. Within a Growth Mindset, mistakes and failures are embraced as an opportunity to learn, grow and improve. Failures are not viewed as negative nor as a threat to the individual’s sense of self. Matthew Syed describes this as Black Box Thinking and provides numerous examples of links between embracing failure and high performance 7.
Think of the power of this if leaders can not only adopt this attitude to mistakes and failures in service of their own learning and growth but create this culture in their team. Look out for the next post on how self-awareness can help build trust in teams.
Top tips for building self-awareness:
- Ask for feedback from those who care and who can also be critical and honest
- Seek out mentorship and support from different people, relating to areas where you want to grow
- Take context into account and notice patterns
- Reflect (often!) by asking what rather than why questions
- Reframe “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet”
- Remember that self-awareness is not a finite attribute but an ongoing process
And to leave you with the words of Ernest Hemingway, “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another”. So: “Practice self-awareness, self-evaluation, and self-improvement. If we are aware that our manners - language, behavior, and actions - are measured against our values and principles, we are able to more easily embody the philosophy: leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do”. (Frances Hesselbein)
- Maddocks, J. (2014). Emotional intelligence at work: how to make change stick. Cheltenham: Spa House Publishing.
- Ashley, G.C. & Reiter-Palmon, R. (2012). Self-awareness and the evolution of leaders: The need for a better measure of self-awareness. Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management, 14 (1), 2.
- Goleman, D. (2004). What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review, 82 (1), 82–91
- Cherniss, C. & Goleman, D. (2001). The emotionally intelligent workplace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Eurich, T. (2018). What self-awareness really is (and how to cultivate it), Harvard Business Review
- Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential. London: Robinson.
- Syed, M. (2016). Black Box Thinking. Marginal gains and the secrets of high performance. London: John Murray.