Become A Better Leader By Improving Self-Awareness

When we think of leadership qualities, we generally think of the ability to rally the troops, a clarity of vision, and the willingness to coax the best work out of each team member. What we don't tend to think of is self-awareness. Self-awareness, in fact, has a certain new-age ring to it - what leader is lying on her hemp bedspread, staring at the ceiling and thinking deeply about whether she truly understands her innermost self?

Photo: Sander van der Werf via Shutterstock

But it turns out that being self-aware is actually a pretty critical trait in an effective leader. According to new research by Tasha Eurich, increasing one's self-awareness is both possible and desirable for those who wish to become better managers.

Eurich, writing for the Harvard Business Review, breaks her definition of self-awareness into two categories, internal and external. Internal self-awareness "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". External self-awareness is more that we see clearly how others see us. People who are internally self-aware tend to be happier in their jobs and personal lives; people who are externally self-aware tend to be more empathetic and have good relationships with their employees.

Neither kind of self-awareness is more important than the other; in fact, an effective leader would be wise to cultivate them both. Eurich has identified four self-awareness "archetypes", laid out on a nifty grid, that range from high internal self-awareness/high external self-awareness to low internal/low external.

Hint: You want to be high in both. Eurich writes: "[L]eaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them. The highly self-aware people we interviewed were actively focused on balancing the scale."

So how can you know if you are truly self-aware, or if you're a big dolt who thinks everyone loves him when his staff is actively updating their resumes/leaving in droves/preparing for a coup? Eurich provides a short quiz, a scaled-down version of a 70-question assessment that includes feedback from multiple other people in your life. (It isn't dissimilar to the 360-degree evaluations that companies do.) For the mini version, you answer some questions about yourself and other questions (also about you) are sent to someone who knows you well.

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That's all well and good, but how can one improve one's self-awareness? One interesting finding is that the higher on the success ladder one gets, the less self-aware one becomes (people who are successful tend to think they have more skills than they actually have; perhaps because once you're the boss, the number of people willing to speak to you frankly about your skills drops precipitously).

And introspection actually doesn't help all that much - especially if you're leading off your questions with "why". It's much more productive, Eurich has found, to start your questions off with what. She references an interviewee who successfully changed fields on his introspection techniques: "Where many would have gotten stuck thinking 'Why do I feel so terrible?,' he asked, 'What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?'" Ideally, this gets you out of a non-productive thought loop - why does my staff seem so apathetic in meetings? - and into a productive line of reasoning: What are in the situations in which my staff seems energised and enthusiastic?

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This kind of reflection can only improve how you feel about your career and your colleagues, and improve how they see you (or at least bring those two perceptions into alignment). You can't improve if you're kidding yourself, so spend some time thinking how your self-awareness, either using Eurich's tools or on your own. No hemp bedspread required.


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