Doug Baker was a rising star in his 30s at Ecolab and was promoted to run a subsidiary. As he was always successful, he became arrogant and self-centred. But his subordinates gave him some tough feedback and exposed his “blind self”. He explained, “it was as if someone flashed a mirror in front of me at my absolute worst.
What I saw was horrifying, but a great lesson. After that, I did a lot of soul-searching about what kind of leader I was going to be, talked to my team and asked for their help”. Baker’s self-awareness led to him becoming CEO of Ecolab nine years later.
Even business schools are looking for self-aware applicants. “Nothing can replace an individual’s self-awareness and ability to articulate how they fit,” says Wharton’s admissions director Rosemaria Martinelli. Pete Johnson, from Berkeley’s MBA admissions, says “it’s better for applicants to be self-aware than claim no weaknesses”. Yet, most business schools hardly teach MBAs how to take time out and find their true self.
Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, says: “I needed to be a better listener coming out of the crisis… I should have done more to anticipate the radical changes that occurred”. Such an admission of self-awareness reveals he may finally be able to take GE forward. Just as being able to see your reflection in the mirror helps you to fix your hair, feedback on your behaviour helps you to be a better leader, improving your judgment. Many of us have large Johari Window blind spots and need to rectify them quickly.
I recently worked with a CEO whose aggressiveness made colleagues resent and distrust him. He did not truly understand these blind spots until he was forced to seek feedback on a regular basis. We are all going to struggle with negative feedback, but if we are unaware of how people view us, we will never be effective.
Being An Authentic Leader
Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon Products, took time reflecting and becoming aware of her strengths and purpose before she transformed Avon and its mission from selling cosmetics to the empowerment of women. Howard Schultz created Starbucks from a self-awareness moment early in his childhood where he vowed to fix a wrong suffered by his father.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing and spending time with Ram Charan, a business guru. Ram reinforced to me the importance of self-awareness and how that leads to being an authentic leader. Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen, worked with Jack Welch in the 80s and saw many Welch copycats. “Everyone wanted to be like Jack Welch, but leadership has many voices. You need to be who you are; not try to emulate somebody else”.
The reality, as Bill George puts it, “is that no one can be authentic by trying to be like someone else. There is no doubt that you can learn from the experiences of others, but there is no way you can be successful in trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not an imitation”. And you can only be an authentic leader by building your leadership from who you are – your distinct personality, traits and preferences make your leadership unique.
Focus on Strengths Not Weaknesses
In 1982, researchers videotaped two bowling teams playing several games. Members of each team then watched the recordings to improve. But the videos received were edited differently with one team receiving a recording of only their mistakes whilst the other team’s video highlighted only their good performances. After studying the videos, both teams improved their game, but the team which studied its successes improved its score twice as much as the one studying mistakes.
This research concludes that focusing on yourself, regardless of mistakes or strengths yields improvement, but zooming in on your strengths is significantly more beneficial. Rath and Conchie in Strengths Based Leadership, revealed the secret to being an effective leader: Knowing your strengths and leveraging them.
Every single business leader I have interviewed started their journey of leadership with the discipline of self-awareness. All of them focused on their strengths and built an authentic leadership style from who they were. You can do likewise.
So, take time off this weekend and start thinking about yourself and who you really are. Better still get some feedback. But be careful, you may actually start changing!
Below is a great video on why developing your character strengths is key to success and happiness. Enjoy below: