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Self-Awareness: The Often-Overlooked Key Quality of Leadership

2 September, 2015

Think about the traits you most closely associate with an effective manager. They might include decisiveness, charisma, commitment, strategic thinking, and the ability to engage employees. These qualities all share a common root that is often invisible at first glance: self-awareness.

Self-awareness refers to a person’s perception of him/herself and how accurately it reflects the perceptions of his/her peers. It means knowing yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your expertise and your blind spots, your good and bad habits, and viewing those attributes through an honest and objective lens.

Leadership searches give short shrift to “self-awareness,” which should actually be a top criterion. Interestingly, a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success. – 2010 study by Green Peak Partners

Like many other so-called “soft skills,” self-awareness is most apparent when it is absent. A manager with low self-awareness might think of himself competent and motivating, while his employees think he is a micro-manager who doesn’t really know what he is doing. He misses opportunities to learn from his mistakes by not taking responsibility for them. He models poor behavior for his employees, and then criticizes them when they follow his lead. He feels threatened when others on his team have good ideas.

By contrast, a manager with high self-awareness accepts that he is not universally skilled at everything, and consciously builds his team with people who are strong in areas where he is not. He welcomes new ideas and feedback, and encourages his employees to take initiative rather than wait for his command. He owns up to his mistakes and uses them as teaching opportunities. He knows what resources, materials, and practices support him in being the best leader he can be and uses that knowledge to his advantage.

Which one would you rather work for? Which one do you want to be?

Achieving Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is better described as a practice than a permanent state. It is not something you just “unlock” or decide to become spontaneously. However, there are distinct steps or actions you can take to get to know yourself better. Follow these guidelines, and watch the results ripple out to the rest of your team:

Be mindful.

Mindfulness is the opposite of auto-pilot. It means being present to whatever it is you are doing – paying attention, observing, learning – and not letting yourself become distracted or so numbed by routine that you fail to notice what is happening. Importantly, mindfulness requires you to slow down rather than rush ahead to the next thing on your calendar or jump to conclusions. By doing this, you invite awareness and tune in with your intuition.

You can cultivate mindfulness through a number of different practices, including keeping a journal, exercising, meditating, engaging in a creative hobby, and practicing active listening during a conversation or presentation.

Establish boundaries.

Self-awareness means knowing where your abilities and capacities end and begin, or in other words, where your boundaries are. Often, people are not aware of their boundaries until those boundaries get crossed. You know when someone has stepped on your toes, when you feel overstretched or overworked, when you run into a task that’s beyond your reach, or when you’re not feeling challenged enough to stay motivated. To be self-aware means to know your limits and to guard them fiercely.

In practice, you might start with establishing boundaries around your time. Resist the urge to overschedule yourself or to commit to too many people or projects, and prioritize your need for rest and recuperation. If you notice yourself feeling burned out or put-upon, that’s a red flag that you are not honoring your boundaries.

Teach yourself about yourself.

Self-awareness is knowledge, which means you must be open to learning more about yourself – and accepting that there are things about yourself that you may be blind to. Put aside your ego and approach your own mind and personality with a sense of curiosity. No matter how well you think you know yourself, there is always more to learn.

There are a number of self-assessment tools, tests, and methodologies out there in the leadership education world, including the Myers-Briggs test, the enneagram, the John Maxwell Leadership Assessment, the DiSC profile, and many more. Each has its merits and its holes, but each is also an opportunity for some insightful introspection.

Ask for feedback.

Remember, self-awareness is not just about how well you know yourself, but how well that self-perception measures up to others’ perceptions of you, especially when you’re in charge of managing or coaching other employees. Just because you don’t think of yourself as a micro-manager doesn’t mean your employees don’t feel micro-managed. When you can see yourself through their eyes, and when that vision aligns with what you see in the mirror, your self-awareness comes into focus.

Give your team the opportunity to provide honest feedback about your managerial style, your effectiveness, and what you are like to work with. Employees will generally feel more comfortable providing this feedback anonymously, without fear of reprisal or negative attention if they have something less-than-flattering to say. But if they see you taking criticism in stride along with praise, they will trust you enough to be honest and forthcoming with any issues that may arise.

Related reading on our blog: 15 Qualities of a Good Coach in the Workplace

More articles about effective leadership and coaching techniques can be found in our STARS library, available to current CSP clients as part of our full-service delivery. Contact us to find out how we support effective coaching and training in pursuit of the optimal customer experience.