“The unexamined life is not worth living”, according to Socrates, a philosopher in Ancient Greece. Essentially, we need introspection to grow whilst learning to understand ourselves. Otherwise, we could miss out on what makes life worth living. In that sense, you could also describe Socrates as one of the first coaches ever.
Coaches still use the Socratic technique today, amongst others, to encourage people to find their own solutions in life. This takes a certain self-awareness from the coachee though. Whilst there’s a lot of talk about self-awareness in leadership development these days, many leaders are still coming to coaches hoping for a magic wand. It doesn’t work that way though. Nevertheless, there are tools and mindsets that coaches can leverage for leaders to find their own magic dust.
Why is Self-Awareness in Leadership Development so Hard?
How do you stay calm when feeling overwhelmed? What stresses you such that you can’t think clearly? Which of your blind spots blocks those around you from developing?
All leaders should be asking themselves, at the very least, those questions. That’s how they can continue to develop self-control, improve decision-making and promote personal growth for both themselves and others. Although, this can be very hard without someone, such as a coach, to hold a mirror up. In fact, the ‘mirror’ is one of the most powerful tools to drive self-awareness in leadership development.
Self-awareness consists of two parts:
1- First, to be self-aware, we need to be able to observe and manage our internal thoughts and feelings.
2- Secondly, self-aware people develop the skill to notice the difference between how they see themselves and how others see them.
And of course it’s hard:
- Our brains tell us that we’re the best at everything. Psychologists even have a term for this: the superiority illusion. Furthermore, studies show that we’re biased because of how our brains are wired, most likely for evolutionary survival.
- We mainly function on autopilot. Essentially, our minds follow habits because that’s a more efficient way of navigating the world. Those habits include thoughts and feelings that we’re usually not even conscious of.
- Inner work is tough. It usually involves facing difficult emotions and unpleasant feelings. Also, it can feel a little bit like staring into the abyss. Then, all the things we don’t like about other people are suddenly there, within us.
Why Leaders are Starting to Sense Something’s Missing
Now that emotional intelligence and self-awareness in leadership development are mainstream concepts, everyone wants to have those traits. This is especially true in this increasingly complex and challenging world. After all, who doesn’t want better self-regulation, creativity, stronger relationships and even resilience?
A few decades ago, leaders would push on through with an autocratic style. In the end, this was hard on both their teams and themselves. Very few, if any, would talk about mental health or wellbeing. Things have changed now and people want to belong to companies that mean something to them and that care about them. So, the main areas for leadership development today are about being more inclusive while following a human approach.
With all these pressures, it’s no surprise leaders need support:
- Stress is the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century” says the World Health Organization, as this study of key stressors explains. Add to that a pandemic with the obligatory isolation and everyone, leaders included, needs a way out.
- Transformational leadership is one of today’s goals but leaders need to develop certain traits that can feel intangible and even inaccessible at times.
- Instant gratification exacerbated by social media leads to anxiety and general dissatisfaction as people keep searching for more answers instantly.
How Coaching Provides Support and Growth
As Daniel Goleman, who brought emotional intelligence to popular media, says in his interview with psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, “self-awareness is the presence of mind to actually be flexible in how you respond, it allows you to be centred and know what your body is telling you”.
Understanding what our body is telling us starts by noticing our emotions. This then doesn’t just cultivate our self-awareness in leadership development. It also allows leaders to go one step further and become transformational.
By better regulating their internal world, leaders can shift their mindset to move from analysing performance gaps to leveraging mutual inquiry. Essentially, their motivations reposition from being driven by what they want to achieve personally to enabling others to perform at their best for the overall benefit of all.
What do transformational coaches offer to enable a shift in attitude and perception?
- Provide space to meet the mind. Getting to know our emotions starts by expanding our language. Most of us tend to say that we’re happy or sad about something. Nevertheless, there are so many more nuances to those emotions. The wheel of emotion is a good place to start.
- Encourage introspection with the question ‘what’ not ‘why’. Basically, the question “why do I feel this way?”, can take you down a loophole of victimhood or blame. For example, asking why can very quickly become “why is this always happening to me?”. A wiser question to ask is “what thoughts are going through my mind?” Alternatively, “what’s another way to view the situation?”.
- Open the door to meet their blind spots. Reframing is a well-known tool by both coaches and therapists to encourage people to appreciate that there are multiple ways of viewing the world. The more we can see the difference between our viewpoint and those of others, the more self-aware we become.
- A guiding hand. It can be daunting and intimidating to get to know yourself. This is partly because the mind does a very good job of telling us what we want to hear. Regardless, a great coach will hold a safe and reassuring space whilst also knowing how to help you use your strengths so you don’t get lost.
Next Steps and Maximising your Coach for your Own Transformation
First and foremost, for self-awareness in leadership development, find someone with whom your leaders can build a rapport. Most importantly though, make sure they have both some overlaps and some differences in experience and viewpoints. Working with someone too similar to the coachee will only confirm their biases.
Naturally, be ready to be challenged and open your mind to exercises and discussions that might sound a bit out there at first. Many people aren’t used to talking about emotions so it will feel strange. Moreover, the mind doesn’t like getting to know its blind spots.
So, let the coach guide you, come to meetings prepared with questions and examples of frustrating or confusing moments you’ve experienced in the past week. Then, be prepared to do the work. It’s a fascinating journey to get to know ourselves and a great coach will leverage your strengths for extra support so you never feel overwhelmed. Once you start, you’ll be amazed at the possibilities of working with your mind.
About the Author
Anne Duvaux is a neuroscience leadership coach who was previously HR director focusing on Leadership & Development as well as coaching. In a past lifetime she was a chartered engineer and is also multilingual having lived in 9 countries and 13 cities. As an Associate Certified Coach with the ICF and more than 20 years’ experience setting up, partnering and leading teams across Europe and Asia in both corporates and early-stage companies, Anne understands how to navigate the challenges of leadership. Today, she brings a mindfulness angle to provide a balanced approach to life’s hurdles.