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Self-awareness: the key to being a more impactful and successful leader

As an independent, strategic partner, I have been coaching leaders for many years, and the topic of self-awareness consistently arises as a crucial block to impactful and successful leadership. From this experience, I am comfortable saying that in the 21st century - self-awareness and the ability to perform deep work are the leadership superpowers that will differentiate you as an effective and impactful leader with a thriving motivated team.

A lack of self-awareness can be risky at best and disastrous at worst. This becomes even more important the more senior you rise within a business. The Peter Principle states that:

Every employee tends to rise to the level of their incompetence.

The Peter Principle arises when the skills and behaviours that make professionals successful at one job level don't lead to continued success when promoted. The most common gap occurs when technical experts are promoted to a leadership role. The rewarding of success often results in the driven and highly successful executives being put in a position where technical expertise or being the best at selling is not top of the list for success in the future. Yet those people who find themselves in the new roles or with additional responsibilities often stick to doing the things that have proven successful in the past. These leaders may even recognise the need to change and to do things differently, but they can't or won't.

What do we mean by self-awareness, why is it imperative to develop in today's fast-moving business world, and how can we go about having more of it?

So what is self-awareness?

Even though leadership is accepted as crucial for businesses to be successful over time, there is no single definition. Academics, successful business leaders, professional and retired sportspeople are increasingly likely to opine on the subject. A challenge with management theory is that each framework typically replaces others and does not build upon that which has come before.

Self-awareness is another ubiquitous term, similar to leadership, where there is no single definition. Dr Tasha Eurich, in her book "Insight - How to succeed by seeing yourself clearly", refers to self-awareness as the meta-skill of the twenty-first century and defines it as:

The ability to see ourselves clearly - understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.

A lack of self-awareness can be risky at best and disastrous at worst. Leadership is behavioural, and so anyone can be an impactful and successful leader. It is the small things that we do that make a difference, influence others and make life at work better. Leaders fail because of who they are and how they act in certain situations. Especially under stress, they respond with a pattern of behaviour that can sabotage their jobs and careers.

The problem is, the higher up you are on the corporate food chain, the less likely you are to be told the truth by the people that surround you. There are fewer people inclined to share their honest opinions about your decisions and leadership. This affliction has been labelled the CEO disease.

Dr Eurich explains what it means to be self-aware. There are two elements to it:

1 - Internal - do you see yourself clearly? This is inward - do we understand our values, what drives us, what work environment do we prefer, and that gets the best out of us.

2 - External - do you know how other people see you? If we can better see ourselves from another's perspective, we will likely build more robust and more trusting relationships.

The good news is that self-awareness is a skill that we can develop through consistent practice, change our behaviour, and develop new habits.

As Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford is quoted as saying.

"...the biggest opportunity for improvement - in business, at home, and in life - is awareness."

Dr Eurich's research identified distinct pillars that makeup self-awareness:

The first is about us:

  • Values and Passion - what guides us, and what do we love to do

  • Aspirations - what do we want to experience and achieve - "what do I really want out of life?"

  • Fit - the type of environment and team that engages us the best and makes us happy, rather than making us feel drained at the end of the day

  • Reactions - their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, especially regarding how we react to being under pressure and feeling stressed. This is often when our strengths are overused and can become derailers.

The last is about our impact on others:

  • Impact - the effect we have on others. Do we instil confidence and motivate our teams, engendering trust or do we constantly micromanage or criticise their work.

To be genuinely self-aware, we need to know how people perceive us, which we cannot do just by looking inward. The only truly reliable source of information about how we come across is feedback.

Self-awareness isn't one truth. It's a complex interweaving of information from multiple, sometimes competing, viewpoints.

I was reminded of the Johari Window while researching this article. The Johari Window is a simple and useful tool for understanding and training self-awareness, personal development, and improving group and team dynamics.

  1. Known by self and known by others - open/free area (top left)

  2. Unknown by self but known by others - blind area (top right)

  3. Known by self but unknown by others - hidden area (bottom left)

  4. Unknown by self and unknown by others - unknown area (bottom right)

The aim is to increase the area of the first box and hence minimise the sizes of the other three. To achieve that, as an example, we might ask for feedback from others and thus start to reduce the size of the blind area. This would be one step in the process of increasing self-awareness. But before we delve into some practical strategies for developing and growing self-awareness, let's first look at some of the more extreme examples of people who have low self-awareness and the negative consequences for the people around them.

Delusional leaders

To make matters worse, the Dunning-Kruger Effect often kicks in - the least competent people tend to be the most confident in their abilities. This is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognise their lack of ability.

I am confident that you will come across people during your careers sitting at the top of "Mount Stupid". While I wouldn't use that label, I have certainly come across many know it all's, self-delusional about their abilities or impact on those around them during my earlier career. For example, the global head of sales who wrongly believed their excellent client skills also made them a highly motivational team leader. The reality was that no one spoke up and just carried on doing what they were doing, so nothing improved. Or the perma-crisis-fixer who was oblivious to the fact that their behaviour and poor communication skills caused the avoidable issues to crystalise. A demotivated and exhausted team were the result, along with no one wanting to work with him. I could go on, and I am sure you have many fascinating examples.

Without self-awareness, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.

Or perhaps worse still, those that are aware but don't care. One of the most challenging problems facing managers is what to do with the diva, the person who's a star performer but a pain to work with. The aberrant genius often put a lot of energy into personal gains at the expense of peer relationships. A me-first attitude exists. They may be aware of the negative impact they have on others but will carry on regardless. This type of person can consume much energy to manage and interact with - we have to learn to control our reactions and emotions, and heightened self-awareness will make this difficult task more manageable.

So with an understanding of what self-awareness is and why it is imperative to develop for a long and successful career, how can we make changes to develop and increase our self-awareness to become more effective and impactful leaders?

What we can do to develop our self-awareness

Here are four ways to develop your self-awareness and help you on the path to mastery of the meta-skill of the twenty-first century:

Reflect - firstly, carve out time every day to reflect. Whether at the start of the day or the end, try to write down your thoughts. A daily check-in can help us be more aware of our thoughts and feelings. Therefore, we can better control our behaviour, quiet our emotions, and react in more intelligent ways, leading to better in the moment decisions. How did your day go today, and how do you feel about how it went? What went well? What didn't go well? What did I learn? These are just some of the questions you could use to guide your reflective practice.

We are all different - Just as there are different types of coaching and different leadership styles, there are different types of people and different elements to an individual's personality. The "big five" are considered to be the key underlying traits that make up an individual's personality. Also referred to as OCEAN (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism), this is a powerful way to help you understand yourself and the people you interact with. There's no right answer. There's no perfect personality. By understanding the underlying personality traits that can lead to different behaviours, we can better understand the people we interact with. Their actions that may be a source of frustration may arise from their default position based on their personality type and the traits hardwired into them. Personality assessments often referred to as psychometrics, can be powerful tools to raise your self-awareness. When shared with your teams, the results provide a common language to understand each other better, leading to more productive teams.

Feedback - The best way to improve your performance at almost anything. Busy, driven people are often missing a systematic feedback mechanism. Feedback is essential to know what to start doing, stop doing and do more of something. In my article about the value of feedback, I share how to become a role model who proactively seeks feedback and constructively acts upon it:

  • Proactively ask your current boss. Specificity is essential. Don't just ask, "How am I doing?" What could you be doing more of, starting to do, stop doing to be more helpful/impactful in the team? Look to help solve their problems and link the feedback to the issues they may be facing.

  • Ask a previous boss. Ask specific questions such as "What did I do that used to drive you up the wall or that caused you to cover for me or put out fires that I inadvertently caused and was unaware of?"

  • Find a mentor at work who will observe you in action and provide timely and constructive criticism.

  • Listen carefully to what people are really saying. Pay attention to what people are saying, what they aren't saying and how they say it.

Hire a coach - An essential element of coaching is raising the client's awareness through focused listening, a supportive environment and challenging, generative questions. With heightened awareness achieved through coaching, clients are well placed to self-identify the skills they need to develop for continued success. This often includes small changes to behaviour, such as how they interact with their teams or peers. Coaching can mitigate the risk that highly driven and successful people will continue to exclusively focus their time and efforts on what has served them best to this stage of their career. Without coaching and newly developed self-awareness, they may fail to realise that a different set of skills and behaviours is what is required to succeed going forward.

The benefits

Although the benefits of self-awareness are clearly evident, it remains a skill and capability that is all too rare the more senior you get on the corporate ladder. There are many reasons why executives don't develop the crucial skill of self-development and hence neglect what is necessary to ignite the human potential within their team. By regarding self-awareness as foundational to their leadership competencies, companies can reap the rewards of more differentiated leaders with thriving and motivated teams.

At RYLN Coaching, we work closely with executives through our coaching service to help them develop these critical skills and behaviours. We help leaders reach their full potential and make the most significant possible impact - leading to the bottom-line results that will be seen as a wise investment by the sponsoring organisations. By ensuring that executives develop self-awareness, they are better positioned to

conquer the challenges they face in their roles.


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