Great Leadership begins with Great Self-Awareness

How can we develop greater self-awareness?

Have you ever felt mildly annoyed/ highly irritated by a co-worker, team member or subordinate, who did not do things the way you do? Or perhaps maybe had the exact same flaws as you? Have you ever ‘criticised’ someone under the guise of feedback because your own subjective feelings got in the way?

Carl Jung, one of the greatest minds in psychology once said:“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

The behaviours described above are a small subset of many such behaviours – where we often judge others, are defensive, maybe display a lack of empathy, etc. These are quite common and often happen subconsciously. What if I told you that the greatest reason for all these behaviours, is often tied to a lack of self-awareness and self-acceptance? 

In a recent series of experiments and studies conducted by S. Krol and J. Bratz, published by the APA in February 2021, emerged a clear proof that lacking a clear and stable sense of self greatly undermines empathy and helping behaviour. In fact, how strongly you understand and accept yourself is directly proportional to your empathy for others. 

But what truly is self-awareness? And how does one achieve it? 

The pursuit of what the ‘self’ is or what consciousness truly is, is an area of a lot of research and debate among the scientific and philosophical communities. The aim of this article, though, is to not shed light on this ongoing pursuit or debate, but to talk about self-awareness from the perspective of emotional intelligence and how self-awareness is a primary need for Leadership. 

What is self-awareness? 

Not to be confused with consciousness, which is more about being aware of one’s existence. Self-awareness, from a psychological lens, is simply defined as the experience of one’s own personality or individuality. It is often formed by the practice of reflective and evaluative processes during individual experiences (Crook 1980 & Morin 2011). 

These processes enable an individual to not only understand their own strengths and weaknesses (Cherniss & Goleman 2001) but also understand how others perceive them (Baumeister 2005, Taylor 2010). Therefore, anticipating how others perceive you and evaluating your own actions according to your personal and collective beliefs and values, as well as caring about how others evaluate you, is a huge part of self-awareness.  

Self-awareness is also directly linked to emotional intelligence. It is believed that self-awareness affects your emotional intelligence and vice versa (Ashkanasy & Dasborough 2003; Gill, Ramsey and Leberman 2005; Goleman 2001). 

The Daniel Goleman model of Emotional Intelligence: 

How can being self-aware make you a better leader?

“The most important part of being a leader is maintaining the desire to keep on learning. This means, learning about yourself, your peers and about the people you serve” – Brian Koval. 

Researchers today contend that self-awareness is a crucial component of leadership. 

Only when a leader is relatively self-aware can he or she appreciate and understand their own personal strengths and weaknesses, and core values. This type of awareness means that they can be vulnerable, authentic, ask and receive feedback well and focus on their growth. Additionally, as we have already seen, self-awareness is directly connected to empathy and a need to help others.  

Research further indicates that leaders who aren’t self-aware, can cut a team’s success by half and they can be really tough to be around as most often: 

  • They won’t listen to, or accept, critical feedback and are often defensive. 
  • They cannot empathise with, or take the perspective of, others. 
  • They have difficulty ‘reading the room’ and tailoring their message to their audience. 
  • They possess an inflated opinion of their contributions and performance. 
  • They are hurtful to others without realising it. 
  • They take credit for successes and blame others for failures (HBR). 

Self-awareness can also impact- decision making, conflict management and coordination in teams (Erich C. Dierdoff and Robert S. Rubin): 

Evidence suggests that leaders with high levels of self-awareness are: 

  • Better able to understand their strengths and weaknesses (Avolio, 2005). 
  • More aware of emotions and understand their impact on others, use emotional awareness for problem solving and less rigid decision making (George, 2000). 
  • Able to instil trust and cooperation in followers (George, 2000). 
  • Important for the success of the leader and organisation (Goleman, 1995) as well as follower success/satisfaction (Muenjohn, 2011). 
  • Seen as more effective (Avolio, Gardner & May, 2004; Klenke). 
  • Able to more accurately recognise emotions and realise the impact they have on their behaviour, which allows better follower relationships (Diggins, 2004). 
  • Able to recognise mistakes (Atwater et al., 2005). 
  • More effective decision makers. 

How can we develop greater self-awareness? 

Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world, but in being able to remake ourselves,” – Mahatma Gandhi 

We can categorize self-awareness into two distinct areas (HBR, Dr. Tasha Eurich): 

  1. Internal self-awareness: which represents how clearly, we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviours, strengths, and weaknesses) and impact on others. 
  2. External self-awareness: which represents understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above. 

When it comes to internal and external self-awareness, it’s tempting to value one over the other. But leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them (HBR, Dr. Tasha Eurich).

Research says that even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10—15 of the people they studied actually fit the criteria (HBR, Dr. Tasha Eurich). 

The most common things suggested to improve self-awareness are: 

Cultivate mindfulness: this means truly being present in the moment as things are happening, rather than being absent or partly present and coming up with your own narratives, which can get shaped by your internal beliefs and sometimes fears. 

Ask for feedback: from colleagues, friends, subordinates, peers and truly being open to receiving it. A lot of people believe they want feedback but only a few are truly receptive to any challenging feedback, very often the ego can dismiss feedback that is not pleasant by making it about the other person. However, some people tend to even take criticism too personally, so it is a very delicate balance to make. Sometimes the thing is to take feedback from people you know who are objective, not from people who like you or dislike you. 

Journal: keeping a journal to track your feelings and thoughts and reflect on them later. 

Set goals and track them: often this gives a lot of insight into who you are and how seriously you follow through. 

Introspect effectively: Using ‘what’ not ‘why’. The ‘what’ questions help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights (HBR, Dr. Tasha Eurich). Whereas ‘why’ questions do not always tap into our deep subconscious where the answers often are. For example, if an employee who receives a bad performance review asks: ‘why did I get such a bad rating?’ They’re likely to land on an explanation focused on their fears, shortcomings, or insecurities, rather than a rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. 

Finally, it is safe to say that self-awareness is a very important criteria to make someone a strong, authentic and transformational leader who is truly respected. Good news it, it can definitely be cultivated through dedicated effort. 

If you’d like to find out more about our approach, or about any of our programmes, please contact us.

Meet the author

I come with over a decade of experience in L&OD. I am a psychology graduate with a master’s in human resources.