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The Role and Importance of Self-Awareness in Your Leadership

I don’t think anyone would disagree with the premise that how you manage your thoughts, emotions, and behavior can and does have an impact on your leadership effectiveness. I recently was talking to a client of mine who started complaining about his boss. I could tell he needed to vent a little bit, so I listened to his story. It went something like this.

I was in a meeting the other day with my boss and the rest of our sales and marketing team. In front of the room were all kinds of charts and graphs—sales revenue, performance data, productivity, efficiency, etc. So, after reviewing all of last month’s revenue results from the charts and graphs, my boss started berating and chastising Dan, one of the sales guys, in a very loud voice in front of everyone else on the sales team. I thought his head was going to explode, it was so red. And then he started threatening the entire team saying heads will roll if improvements aren’t seen by the end of next quarter. Finally he ends up painting this doomsday picture apparently thinking that using fear and threats was going to motivate us to get things turned around.

Does this story sound at all familiar? My guess is that somewhere in your career you have seen a boss treating people in his organization like this.

Take a minute and rate the boss from the above scenario on a scale from 1 – 10 (1 = Very Low, 10 = Very High) on his level of self-awareness: How aware was he of how his behavior in the meeting was negatively impacting his team? My guess is that you didn’t rate him much higher than a 2 or 3. Why? This boss failed miserably in creating a positive work climate that brought out the best in everyone on his team. Look back in your career at the very best leaders you have known or worked for. I am betting that they all had a high degree of self-awareness, which allowed them to do the following:

  • Build your level of confidence and self-esteem and inspire you to do your best

  • Anticipate what you need, whether it be support and encouragement or constructive feedback and direction, resulting in strong relationships with you and others

  • Make you feel like you play an important role and that you have been treated fairly, while at the same time attaining the organization’s goals

Self-awareness begins when we pay attention to our own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. So, ask yourself, when I am interacting with others at work, whether it be my boss, my peers, or my direct reports:

(1) How well do I stay focused in highly stressful situations?

(2) How effectively do I manage my emotions (e.g., anxiety, frustration, anger)?

(3) Am I able to avoid displaying negative body language?

Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus wrote in their book, Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge ( that a key factor of effective leadership is “creative deployment of self,” and that this starts with self-awareness. Self-awareness, they add, goes beyond simply knowing your strengths and weaknesses; it means knowing how your personal strengths are aligned with the requirements of their organization.

Below is a way to begin to increase your self-awareness, and subsequently your effectiveness. Answer these questions in the context of your current role at work and then list at least three ways that you can achieve higher levels of each.

  1. Am I able to recognize and identify my major strengths and my weaknesses? In two columns side by side, list them.

  2. How motivated am I to get feedback about my performance from others? Why might get in the way of me asking for it?

  3. Do I maintain my emotional composure and remain focused and clear-headed when under stress? When under stress at work, what do I experience mentally and emotionally, what do others see, and what is the impact on them?

  4. How successful am I noticing my ingrained, reactive, emotional habits (e.g., losing my cool, getting frustrated, withdrawing, etc.) and then preventing them from interfering with my relationships and leadership effectiveness?

By thinking about and answering these questions, you can begin to scratch the surface of enhanced self-awareness. Then when you start taking action on what you discover about yourself, your impact on others will be greatly enhanced. When you look in the mirror, hopefully, you don’t see the boss portrayed earlier. There are still far too many managers and leaders out there who use scare tactics and threats to motivate. And, yes, they are successful in obtaining short-term results. However, unless they can hone their self-awareness skills, they are not likely to be successful in sustaining the more important long-term results.

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