What’s the first lesson of Leadership 101? Begin with yourself. Be the change. Walk the talk—right?
It sounds simple. But it’s the assignment that’s easiest to fail. Because you might not know yourself as well as you think. And, without self-awareness, it’s impossible to be a role model for others.
Does self-awareness mean you realize you’re a number cruncher first and a communicator second? Or that you secretly hate networking but force yourself to show up because that’s what leaders do. Although understanding strengths and weaknesses is important, it’s not the whole picture.
Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich identifies two categories of self-awareness.
“The first. . . internal self-awareness, represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. We’ve found that internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression.
“The second category, external self-awareness, means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above. Our research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives. For leaders who see themselves as their employees do, their employees tend to have a better relationship with them, feel more satisfied with them, and see them as more effective in general.
Both views are important for leaders who want to create positive cultures and strong teams. However, the benefits of exploring your inner dynamics extend far beyond business. Improved understanding of personal motivations, feelings, and behavior contributes to:
- Emotional intelligence—When you are a student of your own behavior, it’s easier to identify patterns in relationships and roadblocks to communication.
- More objective decision-making—Clarity about your own goals, values, and priorities makes tough decisions easier and will give you confidence in your choices.
- Personal growth—Acknowledging what brings out the best in you as well as what triggers less desirable behavior builds confidence and makes for more positive interactions.
Despite these and plenty of other reasons to take a deep dive into you, Eurich’s research also revealed that, based on her definition, only about 10-15% of people are truly self-aware.
In an article titled “Why Leaders Lose Their Way,” Harvard business professor, Bill George, explains why the disconnection from personal reality can happen like this.
“When leaders focus on external gratification instead of inner satisfaction, they lose their grounding. Often, they reject the honest critic who speaks truth to power. Instead, they surround themselves with sycophants who tell them what they want to hear. Over time, they are unable to engage in honest dialogue; others learn not to confront them with reality.”
All CEOs grapple with this Catch-22. However much you want to know how others perceive you, revealing that bald-faced reality may not be in your employees’ best interests. Having a truthful relationship with yourself is a little like marriage. Success requires intention, practice, honesty, and effort.
Seek Objective Advisors
A sympathetic ear is nice, but affirmation isn’t what you’re looking for. If you don’t already have a professional support system, I urge you to find objective advisors. You can’t rely on staffers in your organization to fill this role. Career coaches and mentors are great. Even better, is a group of trusted colleagues who have walked in your shoes, can provide wise counsel, and will deliver constructive criticism. I can’t over-emphasize the benefits of learning from people with a variety of perspectives and experiences.
My colleague Joanna Pineda, CEO and Chief Troublemaker at Matrix Group International Inc., describes her team of advisors like this. “I belong to a CEO peer group called Vistage. We meet once a month. Most of the members are running businesses larger than mine in very different industries, but our concerns are surprisingly similar.
“Association executives are really lucky. They can take advantage of .orgCommunity’s Leadership Circle groups where they can compare notes with executives who are on parallel journeys. The opportunity to share challenges, in confidence, with the brightest colleagues in the business is an invaluable resource. Vistage contends that because the CEO has the biggest impact on the organization, he or she also is the person who needs to have the most expansive point of view and the broadest professional development.”
Joanna’s nod to .orgCommunity Circles was gratifying. When my business partner Kevin Ordonez and I launched .orgCommunity one of our goals was to connect our colleagues with people and ideas who could expand their horizons and help them grow. The Circles offer a welcoming environment. Participants find guidance, innovative thinking, and the opportunity to view their roles through a new lens. If you could benefit from a group like this, we invite you to join .orgCommunity and discover a new source of expertise.
Be an Active Listener
A group of advisors is an invaluable career resource. They can support you through risky decisions, business downturns, and even job loss. That synergy won’t happen unless you come to the table prepared to listen.
People frequently enjoy their own observations best. Instead of focusing on your ideas, pay attention to others. Silence that inner commentator whose chatter is louder than any voice in the room. Bring all of your senses to the dialogue. Become an active listener by practicing these skills.
- Engage fully. Put your phone away, or better yet, don’t bring it into the room. Clear thoughts about tonight’s dinner or the report that’s due next week from your mind and live in the moment. This isn’t easy, as anyone who has tried meditation will tell you. However, awareness of the distractions can minimize their impact.
- Observe behavior. Tone of voice, body language, and facial expression are clues to what or how people want to communicate.
- Create space for conversation. Ask open-ended questions that invite feedback and follow-up. Use phrases like “Tell me more.” “What’s your opinion?” “What would you do?”
- Confirm what you heard. Mirroring dialogue can seem like that annoying customer service tactic designed to calm unhappy campers. (“I understand that you’re upset and can’t imagine how your suitcase ended up in Singapore. . .” ) False sympathy seldom does the trick. But an honest effort to grasp a colleague’s point of view will be well received. Summarizing brings clarity to complicated ideas or discussions.
- Put long-held beliefs about yourself aside. This can be painful. But, without a commitment to hear constructive criticism, you won’t benefit from the feedback.
Commit to Continuous Improvement
We are works in progress. Take what you learn from your advisory group and improve on it. Make time for reflection. Practice questioning your attitudes and intentions before every decision. Inventory the areas you want to strengthen or change and dedicate space in your schedule to assess your progress. Attend classes or workshops to polish skills.
If you like to write, try keeping a journal. The process of documentation illuminates insights you might not otherwise discover. Journaling has the added benefits of reducing stress and improving creativity and problem-solving.
I frequently write about Association 4.0 leadership, or the qualities needed for success in digital markets. Whether I’m discussing strategy, marketing, membership, or culture, I recommend a growth-focused approach. Curiosity, willingness to change, and the drive to explore your relationship with yourself and others will equip you to navigate a fast-moving future and to become the role model your team needs for success.