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  • Sean Ryan

The Best Leaders are Self-Aware

The Best Leaders are Self-Aware


“Who are you? Who? Who? Who? Who? Ah, who the f*** are you?”

The Who

How can you lead others if you don’t know who you are?

The simple answer: not very well.

Yet most leaders forge ahead, expecting others to follow, with little self-knowledge. It’s easy to see why: every leader we know is crazy busy…seemingly pinballing from one task, activity, call, conversation or web conference to the next.

You have so many responsibilities and deliverables that you’re in a constant state of action. That doesn’t leave much time for reflection, especially about yourself. But self-awareness isn’t narcissistic navel-gazing. It’s an essential foundation for your leadership.

True leadership starts within

For too long, leadership development has focused in the wrong direction: outward. While it’s often presented as a series of tactics to master, true leadership transcends management functions and goes straight to the core of who you are: your core of character.

It’s a paradox: leadership is not about you. It’s about your team and organization. But great leadership is about who you are — you’ve got to work on yourself first.

So in this post, I explain why self-awareness is essential for leaders and how you can start developing this vital skill. And don’t worry; you don’t need to book a retreat or meditate for hours a day to get more in touch with what’s happening inside. It’s actually a fairly simple habit you can start practicing today.

Why is self-awareness important?

Asking, “who am I?” is not just for stoned college students or self-involved seekers. It’s essential to being a full person and a well-rounded leader. It helps you understand your blind spots, uncover your unconscious biases, and examine the underlying mental models behind your decisions. Greater self-awareness can open your mind and heart so you can lead with more clarity, integrity and compassion.

To me, self-awareness means actively noticing and reflecting upon my thoughts, emotions, reactions and intentions and thinking about how they influence my behavior and its impact on others.

Here are a few ways it can make you a better person and leader.

Live Your Values

Self-awareness is a character check, an opportunity to reflect upon your values and measure your actions against them.

That’s integrity, after all: when what you say you believe and what you do align.

Articulating your values can not only provide greater clarity of purpose but can also give you strength in adversity. When you know what you stand for and why what you do matters, it becomes much easier to make tough decisions. Faced with ethical or moral dilemmas, when you’re self-aware, you have a well of strength from which to draw. Your character is your compass.

Get your inner foundations set, and you don’t have to rethink who you’ll be on the job. You’ll know because you know yourself. And that will guide how you build relationships, how you learn and teach, and how you steward your company culture.

Build Engagement

Do you ever stop to think about how you impact others? Too many leaders don’t. And the effects of lacking self-awareness aren’t only personal: they also limit your ability to build trust and rapport with your team.

People want to feel deeply connected to something bigger than themselves.

Values are at the core of this connection because they communicate what matters. These guiding principles tell everyone what is accepted and expected. When you are clear on what you stand for and can share those values across your team, trust is built, engagement is nurtured, and a sense of deeper meaning is born.

If you are authentic and open and embody the principles you say matter, people will much more willingly follow your lead.

Make Better Decisions

Are you always right?

Well, of course not!

And yet, many leaders act like they are infallible. And that shuts down the opportunity to learn and grow. When you accept the possibility of being wrong, when you approach so-called failure as an opportunity, when you challenge your beliefs, assumptions and perceptions of how the world operates, and stop to question your thinking, you will see gaps. You may realize that some of your decision-making has been, if not arbitrary, then at least shaped by your biases.

Understanding the thoughts and feelings behind your actions gives you a better understanding of your behaviors, why you tend to respond in certain ways, and why some things always seem to “happen” to you. Everything you do, from coaching teammates and holding difficult conversations to setting performance goals, are manifestations of your inner self.

Improve Yourself

Self-awareness helps you understand your strengths and weaknesses.

You can’t work on yourself if you don’t know yourself. Self-knowledge lets you see your flat sides or those areas that can use some work to increase your potential.

Easy ways to become more self-aware

  1. Take a beat. Instead of responding instantly to a request or situation, stop for a moment. In that pause, do a little inventory of your body, mind and mood: what is your emotional state? What is your knee-jerk response? What thoughts did it provoke? This pause should allow you to step back, assess your first response, and proceed in the best–and maybe a different–direction. As Brené Brown puts it, “We can’t live into values that we can’t name, AND living into values requires moving from lofty aspirations to specific, observable behaviors.”

  2. Seek new ideas that challenge or contradict what you think and believe. Whether that’s through reading books or articles, meeting new kinds of people, or trying an activity that pushes you outside your comfort zone, venture beyond the confines of your current worldview.

  3. Ask for feedback and be open to what you hear. In The One-Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard, quoting my good friend Rick Tate wrote, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” To that, I’d add, "feedback is the breakfast of champions, as long as you’re willing to eat it.” We have to be willing to seek feedback and open to making changes based upon what we hear…as painful as that sometimes might be.

  4. Invite inquiry into your point of view. I once worked with a leader of a massive construction project. At a key planning meeting with his leadership team, instead of leading with his thoughts, he said this: “I have a point of view on this, but I might disagree with myself before I finish the first sentence.” This little line–“I may disagree with myself”–invited his team to fully engage in a conversation that ultimately resulted in the leader changing his point of view.

  5. Look at the big picture. In Just Lead, our signature leadership development program, we invite participants to create their Leadership Legacy outline in which they write a short “article” about the legacy they want to leave behind. It is a hugely grounding exercise that helps them lift their gaze beyond the pressing demands of the moment and consider what really matters.

  6. Let go of ideas or information that no longer serve you. After all, if nothing changes, nothing is learned.

Like leadership, self-awareness is a journey that never ends. It’s an ongoing process of examination. Because whatever you think you know today may not be true or serve you in the future.

I’d love to hear about your experiences. Tell me about an experience that has made you more self-aware or prompted you to change how you think? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.


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