Self Awareness & Leadership: Fixing Yourself First

  • Ezra
  • August 13th, 2020

What should leaders be doing to manage the ravages of COVID-19 and the social justice demands that come with the Black Lives Matter movement? For better or worse, there is no shortage of advice.

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The World Business Forum declared “adaptive leadership” – the ability to analyze a crisis and pivot your business model – a key for business leaders to not just survive, but thrive in these turbulent times.

The Harvard Business Review has identified a number of best practices for leaders, from the willingness to take decisive action to organizational restructuring to advance racial justice, and everyone’s go-to best practice for leading in a crisis – clear and honest communication.

McKinsey focused on the ability of leaders to apply lessons learned from past crises to current challenges. Chief Executive Magazine purported to have the definitive list of “enduring lessons for turbulent times” that includes an emphasis on communication, short and long-term thinking and “creating order from chaos.”

All good advice, although you could not fault the average leader for wondering which advice to take given that there is a broad and profound difference in skillset and mindset among those counted among the ranks of business leadership.

Before you can fix a problem you may need to fix yourself

Before a leader can focus on a list of strategic priorities, it’s important for them to identify their strengths and weaknesses. It is unlikely that introvert leaders will suddenly summon the fire and brimstone of a truly motivational communicator just because a virus is ravaging the globe. Just as selfish, greedy leaders may find it difficult to generate the empathy and compassion necessary to introduce meaningful change to promote racial, gender and pay equity.

Sometimes the best advice is the oldest advice. It was Socrates who said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” In the face of a tsunami of advice on what everyone should be doing, and how they should be doing it, the wisdom of self-awareness seems to be pretty obvious.

The foundation of emotional intelligence

So, what is self-awareness and how does one go about acquiring it?

According to author and educator Daniel Goleman, a foremost expert on emotional intelligence for business leaders, defines self-awareness as “knowing one’s internal states, preferences, resources and intuitions.” He further identifies three core competencies of self-awareness: emotional awareness; accurate self-assessment; and self-confidence.

Although he does not rank it as the most important quality of an emotionally intelligent leader, it is the first one he lists. And for good reason. Tasha Eurich, a best-selling author and researcher specialising in the link between self-awareness and business success, argues the research is conclusive: when leaders seem themselves clearly and objectively, they are more creative, confident, make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships and are less likely to lie, cheat and steal.

However, there’s a catch when it comes to self-awareness. As Goleman notes, “How would you know that you are not self-aware?” Before you can assess your own emotional intelligence, you’ll need to engage in a little self-reflection. In other words, be honest. Do you really know yourself, and do you know how others see you?

Building self-awareness for now and the future

Google “how to build self-awareness” and you’ll find a long and – at times – hilarious list of suggestions. From meditating at work, to long walks in the wilderness and increased consumption of herbal teas, there are all kinds of half-baked suggestions on how to build true self-awareness. However, most of the suggestions focus on how to make leaders more introspective. And that is not necessarily self-aware.

Eurich notes that focusing too much one’s self can, not surprisingly, lead to self-serving behaviour. And the mere act of introspection has a habit of convincing people they are self-aware, when that’s not the case. Eurich said her own research has shown that while 95 per cent of people think they are self-aware, the actual number is closer to 15 per cent.

Individual leaders who are genuinely interested in becoming more self-aware need to put in the hard work to challenge assumptions about how they lead and how other see them. Fortunately, being willing to do the work is, in and of itself, a victory.

The good news is that just trying is more than half the battle. “Working on your self-awareness will put you ahead of 80 percent of your colleagues,” Eurich said in a recent interview. It is the secret ingredient. Don’t put pressure on yourself to do it quickly — be open to what people tell you so that you can make a significant improvement.”

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