Aug 17, 2022

Self-awareness is the most important skill for great leaders

How self-aware do you feel? How well do you truly understand all your thoughts, emotions and motivations? The real question is how honest are you with yourself. As we’ll see, research shows that 95% of people think they’re self-aware but the actual proportion is 12 to 15%. In fact, the first challenge of self-awareness is to let go of the illusion that you already have it.

Self-awareness or the experience of personality?

The term self-awareness was first coined by social psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund in 1972 when they published their theory of self-awareness. They defined self-awareness as the ability to focus attention on the self. Essentially, that’s how we experience our personalities. 

The concept of “knowing oneself” has actually been around since Ancient Greece. Although, it was psychiatrist Daniel Goleman who brought it to the world of business with his first book, Emotional Intelligence, and subsequent research. In his HBR article on “what makes a leader”, Goleman defines self-awareness as “knowing one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals – and their impact on others.”

Psychologist Tasha Eurich expands this concept in her HBR article on what self-awareness is. She defines different types of self-awareness in terms of internal and external awareness. Essentially, internal self-awareness refers to our values, hopes and ambitions as well as our personality types, emotions and thoughts. On the other hand, external self-awareness is understanding how people see us.

Why should we care about self-awareness?

The crux of the matter is that without a certain level of self-awareness, leaders can’t adapt to situations and challenges. How many leaders have you seen who have the best intentions but somehow overwhelm their teams? Without self-awareness, all the feedback in the world won’t help them change their behaviors. They need self-awareness to act on feedback so they can keep improving. 

The benefits of self-awareness don’t just stop at developing yourself. With awareness, you also get greater job satisfaction, improved relationships and higher well-being. All this because you know what you enjoy, what stresses you and how to manage it. Most importantly, you know how to communicate to positively impact people around you. This goes far beyond simply experiencing your personality. Although, as we mentioned in our previous article on how coaches boost self-awareness, it isn’t always easy.

With such benefits, why don’t more people have greater self-awareness?

  • Cognitive distortions – self-aware people are adept at matching their behaviors with their internal standards such as values. This concept might sound easy but unpacking our true values from expectations and biases can be a long personal journey often done with a coach or therapist. A coach can help raise awareness of our distorted ways of thinking that lead to unhealthy worldviews and unhelpful behaviors.
  • Feedback triggers – investigating our minds and discovering our darkest thoughts can be a terrifying experience. Moreover, as this article on neuroscience and feedback explains, neuroscientists have shown that our minds go into fight-or-flight when we receive feedback. This naturally blocks any self-awareness. That’s why wise leaders work with coaches to help them manage their emotions to then welcome feedback. 
  • Emotional disconnect – most of us were taught to suppress emotions growing up. Things are changing now for children but as social beings, we still need guidance. Leadership coaches are trained to show leaders how to discover their inner worlds in a safe space. By reconnecting to thoughts and emotions, leaders can also see the connection with how they behave. Only then can they start making the changes they want to fine-tune their leadership approach. 

Turn off auto-pilot and lead authentically

Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich conducted 5 years of research to demonstrate that only 12 to 15% of leaders are actually self-aware. The problem is that generally, people view themselves as their ideal self rather than their actual self. That’s because the mind is very good at convincing us of what we want to believe. 

This issue is further exacerbated because the majority of people are living their lives on auto-pilot. Of course, doing things automatically brings many benefits. After all, no one wants to re-learn brushing their teeth or driving a car every day. Nevertheless, being in automatic mode means that you’re not paying attention to your habits.

For example, leaders on auto-pilot are constantly being distracted by phones and interruptions so they can’t focus on important things. They also don’t have the awareness to notice their stress levels. So, they fall into a vicious circle where they’re overwhelmed by their high-pressure responsibilities. This means that they get angry at people without wanting to or they over-focus on the smallest detail. Instead, aware leaders take time to reflect on their behaviors and how they impact people’s motivations to get the best out of them. 

Now consider the self-aware leader who knows how their moods impact the teams. They never play the blaming game because they’re in tune with people. Instead, they create a psychologically safe and collaborative environment. This makes them both authentic and trustworthy because they’re aligned with their emotions and thoughts without suppressing or fearing them. 

Are you leading on auto-pilot?

  • How often do you reschedule one on ones? When we’re pulled in different directions, our minds can’t focus, let alone be self-aware. Instead, use the one on ones for 2-way feedback and to really get to know your direct reports and their inner motivations. 
  • When did you last allocate time for reflection? Aware people always make sure they have daily reflection time, even if only for 10 minutes. They also have at least one block of time a week to review their overall short and long-term goals and how they align with their values.
  • What constructive feedback are you currently working on? Self-aware people are always working on at least one behavior. They also have trusted people around them to support them along the way.  

Reclaim your awareness and improve your leadership

Being on auto-pilot means that we are not in control. That’s when we get triggered and stress takes over. Essentially, our environment governs us such that we can’t process emotions. When lack of self-awareness and auto-pilot become the norm, we also risk our mental health because we can’t balance our minds with emotional regulation. In technical terms, stress chemicals such as cortisol never return to normal levels so increasing our chances of heart disease.

In contrast, awareness is the ability to set attention to how our emotions impact our behaviors. For example, highly self-aware leaders know what frustrates them. To manage this, they work through their emotions and look at different perspectives to relieve the frustration. 

Having a higher level of self-awareness allows leaders to know their minds so they can lead themselves. In turn, this allows them to relate more deeply to other people who are also struggling to master their own minds. All this brings a sense of authenticity because self-aware leaders have accepted who they are. They don’t play games nor do they try to pretend they’re someone else

… with mindfulness

Interestingly, we all have to learn self-awareness as it isn’t something we’re born with. The good news is that our brains are constantly learning and rewiring so we can all improve our awareness. One of the most powerful techniques for doing this is practicing mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention, in the present moment, without judgement. The goal behind mindfulness is to tune in to our feelings, emotions, and thoughts and simply observe them. With time, we see our patterns of thinking and how they drive our behaviors. We can then better manage ourselves and align our behaviors to our values. 

The book, The Mind of the Leader, expands on this idea for developing effective leaders. In summary, a mindful, self-aware, and compassionate leader is more likely to engender trust, agility and connectedness, all of which increase overall effectiveness. They’re then better equipped for today’s complex challenges and for managing a multigenerational and diverse workforce

Concurrent actions to improve your self-awareness

  • Get a coach – One of the most effective ways for developing self-awareness is to work through your thoughts, feelings and emotions with a coach. They’ll encourage introspection and they’ll also be a sounding board and a mirror to highlight blind spots.
  • Develop a feedback culture – whilst the mind naturally rejects feedback, with greater awareness, people start to welcome feedback. Leaders can then create an open culture where people feel safe being vulnerable and asking for constant feedback. 
  • Get to know your emotions – the first step in self-awareness is to pay attention to your emotions. Get to know them and name them so that they don’t turn into stories that overwhelm you. The wheel of emotions is a great tool to start practicing to name your emotions whenever you pause during the day. 
  • Pay attention to your frustrations – negative thoughts make us feel bad. We can also lose ourselves in the emotions and the stories that go with negative thoughts. A useful technique is to challenge negative thoughts but you need the awareness to notice them first. So, set the intention to pay attention and notice when negative thoughts come up during the day. Then, you can challenge and reframe them either through journaling or with a coach as your ally. 
  • Practice saying “I don’t know” – language has a big impact on our behaviors and how we see ourselves. For example, making a concerted effort to look for positives in a day will naturally boost your mood. Moreover, saying “I don’t know” creates a sense of humility. You then increase your awareness as you note your weaknesses and come to terms with the emotions around the uncertainty of not knowing. Language coaches can further guide you on how to use language to improve your self-awareness.

Define your self-awareness journey

Self-awareness isn’t just the ability to know ourselves and understand our inner worlds. It’s also critical if we hope to respond to feedback, grow and change our behaviors. Most importantly, self-aware leaders are wiser and better able to respond rather than react to pressures and frustrations. 

Moreover, top leaders know they can’t reach their maximum potential without a guide and an ally at their side. Coaches constantly challenge our awareness so nudging us on the never-ending journey of limitless growth. 


Coaching, Company Culture, Leadership, People, Skills-Based Coaching

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