Things that come in threes are perfect
Benjamin Franklin once said, “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”
If the founding father of the United States and world-renowned polymath says that, it sheds some light on why self-awareness remains a challenge to most leaders, even if it is probably one of the most overstated concept of leadership.
The consequential question to what seems to be a challenging journey is this: Are we even capable of developing self-awareness?
Firstly, self-awareness at its most basic is our capability for consciousness in recognising ourselves as distinct from our surroundings. Scientific research shows that this process happens in the wrinkly part of our brain known as the cerebral cortex. Interestingly, even with a damaged cerebral cortex, we are still able to recognise ourselves.
The argument then is the evidence that human beings are naturally wired to be conscious. For the sceptics who question whether everyone can develop self-awareness, the evidence points to a strong “yes”. We have the biological endowment, but are we putting in the developmental efforts?
Three components of healthy self-awareness
Preceding the effort to decide on what needs to be done in a developmental journey of self-awareness is the understanding of what defines self-awareness beyond consciousness.
There are varied definitions but most agree that consciousness reflects an ability to think while self-awareness is the next level in which an individual is capable of thinking about their thoughts (metacognition).
For example, babies develop consciousness the moment they are born (i.e. they respond to stimulus) but it is only in the first few years of life that they start developing a sense of self which allows them to distinguish their perspectives from adults’ perspectives. This sense of self may include our thoughts, emotions, strengths, weaknesses, values, needs, etc.
In terms of leadership, the first trinity consists of three key components that are present for healthy self-awareness – honesty, action and self-other intention.
In Daniel Goleman’s study on emotional intelligence, he found that leaders that rise and stay at the top of the organisation are characterised by a strong sense of self-awareness. This definition of self-awareness does not deviate much from what we defined earlier, but it does stress a strong value of honesty in our self-evaluation.
The argument is that a view that is neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful is key to a leader’s performance given that they become experts between the interplay of their own strengths and weaknesses.
Self-awareness is also commonly viewed to be a passive act of thinking whereby the focus is just a mere contemplation of one’s thoughts while leadership has a strong basis in proactive action. A high level of self-awareness always comes with action because these individuals understand that thoughts are stagnant until it produces a tangible action.
Self-aware leadership is about making intentional and informed decisions in the best time through the basic act of monitoring and controlling their thoughts (i.e. managing subliminal biasness).
Finally, there needs to be a differentiation between self-awareness and other concepts with negative connotations such as self-absorption.
While both concepts focus on the self, self-awareness is an inward focus that is driven by one’s connection to the environment. It is the act of taking in the feedback from the environment and triangulating these thoughts with our own perspective before producing an action plan that is aligned with situational considerations.
With self-absorption, there is an unbalanced emphasis on the self in the interplay of self-other intention despite an initial inward focus because the succeeding action is one that is myopic and ignores environmental cues.
By far, this article has sought to define self-awareness and to reiterate three key components of healthy self-awareness. But what would it mean to leaders? Lauren Zalaznick who sits on the board of directors for Shazam sums it up in two sentences, “Throughout your career you hear lots of feedback, if you hear feedback and don’t agree with it, it doesn’t matter what you think. Truth is you are being perceived that way.”
Harsh. Yet sensible. Leaders who understand this reality and seek to increase their self-awareness are able to position themselves better to manage different perceptions.
Consequently, their leadership capabilities are reinforced in three areas – leading in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, leading recovery and leading in authenticity.
Three outcomes of self-aware leadership
VUCA is a term currently used to describe the global environment characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Leading in such environment requires that the leader has strong inner resources (i.e. experience, knowledge and values) that can be leveraged to increase their situational awareness in a disrupted external world.
Top leaders with a strong level of self-awareness realise that certain strengths can be weaknesses depending on the context. Take, for example, Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign in the 2008 US elections. McCain was famous for his independent mind and quick action which led him to decide to put his campaign on hold in order to address the financial crisis.
However, in addressing the crisis, he made strong yet erratic statements (i.e. declaring the economy to be fundamentally sound and then attacking Wall Street) which reduced the public’s confidence in his ability to make judgments.
In this case, while the situation provided a good opportunity to the Senator to showcase his leadership, misplaying his quick-mindedness became an example of how a leader can fail to effectively adapt one’s leadership to the needs of a situation. Had he taken the time to step back and consider an intentional response, he likely would have acted prudently.
In 2004, David Pottruck was fired from his position as the CEO of flailing financial services company Charles Schwab. What shocked him was that his dismissal had been so quick. He knew that the bad organisational performance reflected risk in his position but given he had been co-CEO Charles Schwab’s protégé and partner – shouldn’t he have been given a second chance?
The unforgiving reality reflected his lack of awareness about his position, yet he took his first step in self-awareness in leading his recovery by accepting the dismissal as a temporary setback rather than an ultimate failure.
As he moved through his transitional period of ex-CEO to entrepreneur, he relied heavily on his ability to reflect and evaluate his situation in keeping him grounded. What resulted from this new-found self-awareness was a realisation that while the past was good, it had its share of horrible times; times he would not choose to live again.
In addition, it gave him a clearer hindsight as he was able to put under the microscope all the bad decisions he had made in Charles Schwab that had led him to his situation. It took a year of transition but ultimately, as a leader, Pottruck chose to look inward and work on himself as opposed to blaming others in leading his recovery journey.
Leading recovery can also be extrapolated to an organisational level such as Richard Branson’s story of his company’s venture into Virgin Cola, which was a big failure in the organisation. Branson is a keen advocate for mistakes as a leverage for self-awareness.
He believes that we can learn from mistakes to be better at self-awareness, just as how he looked inward with regards to Virgin Cola’s failure and realised that the failure was a result of overconfidence in repeating previous successful models – not realising that there were problems with the idea (i.e. not aligned with Virgin’s core positioning).
Finally, self-awareness is a key in leading authentically. We show a preference for leaders who are self-assured enough to lead, but also humble enough to know when they do not have all the reins.
Research shows that authentic leaders tend to be able to create meaningful connections with their followers which then translates to strong performance. Authentic leadership in this aspect refers to the knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, garnering the leader’s organisational and personal credibility.
John Mackey, founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods is a strong believer that a leader’s personal growth translates to an organisation’s growth. As an advocate for conscious capitalism and leadership, Mackey often attributes his ability to look inward as the reason why he has a purpose which aligns with his business growth and, ultimately, the growth of conscious business leaders globally.
Three barriers to developing self-awareness
Each leader’s story mentioned above and research put forth would rationally give strong support in the case of a leader’s need for self-awareness. Regardless, in ensuring the success of such development, there are possible barriers.
This article looks at three main hindrances to obtaining stronger self-awareness – the human’s ego, naivety and fear. To begin with, humans have an in-built ego system usually powered by the brain’s emotional structure (i.e. the amygdala). It functions as an alarm system in the case of an identity threat.
For leaders, this ego system can go into overdrive especially where the influence of power is concerned. A study conducted by neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi from Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario showed that the presence of power clouds our ability to empathise.
When there is a change in perception of power especially when we feel more powerful than others, results of the study show that this shift reduces our ability to empathise. When our ability to empathise is reduced, we are less accurate in reading others, which then diminishes the plausibility of our self “maps”.
As self-awareness is derived in relation to others, less accurate maps decrease our capability to respond to our environment optimally. A related barrier is fear, which is also attributed when our amygdala is in overdrive. For example, the fear of being alone can cause significant discomfort.
Seeing that being self-aware is often assisted by temporary physical aloneness (i.e. reflection time) and can result in realisations that we prefer not to know otherwise, it is understandable why developing self-awareness can be a significant challenge among humans wired for relationships.
Finally, being naive and inexperienced can prove to be a hindrance in developing stronger self-awareness as leaders have a myopic view of the superhero leader, believing they are truly the only ones who can save the world. Again, discounting external perspectives even with the best intention is likely to lead to immature decisions and weak leadership.
Three key techniques to developing self-awareness
Nevertheless, as with all barriers, there will be weapons to break it down. This article looks at three key techniques that could possibly break barriers and build our capacity in developing self-awareness, which in turn will lead to better leadership.
Building mindfulness is the first key solution as simple acts such as meditation has shown to activate our parasympathetic system which increases the capability of self-awareness and openness to new ideas – at least based on research by Professor Richard Boyatzis, a well-known thought leader in organisational behaviour. This mindfulness also helps overcome the primal emotional system we have and stop ego and fear from taking over the next time we try to access our self-awareness.
Next, self-awareness may be derived from the self but it does not occur in just that vacuum. Continually collecting experiences not only adds to our internal information base but the constant exposure to new experiences allows us to experiment our alignment with different situations and create convergence between our true north and the external world.
Finally, since self-awareness works in a loop with our external environment, seek to engineer your environment so it is the most fertile for you to develop your self-awareness. Research by the Centre of Creative Leadership showed that constantly acquiring honest and truthful feedback can help build self-awareness especially when it comes from someone credible like a current boss.
Moreover, Jim Roth suggests that we are the sum of the five people we are closest with which reminds us that we need to prune our network to ensure that we are surrounded by those who are best suited to provide us with external perspectives and data to triangulate with. Conceptually, self-awareness seems to be an exercise on our own. Actually, it is best as an exercise with others.
To conclude, leaders are also human beings and there is strong bearing on a healthy level of self-awareness to build a strong true north within the leader to withstand external pressures. It won’t be the easiest of journeys, but like diamonds in the rough, our self-awareness becomes a gem through significant refining and polishing.
There will be a plethora of information and courses that promise how-to’s of leadership but every perspective is a new light shed on self-awareness – just like this article’s omne trium perfectum (Latin phrase for everything that comes in three is perfect) view of self-awareness.
It remains paradoxical that self-awareness slows us down to speed ourselves up as better leaders. Yet, isn’t that what leadership has always been, i.e. managing paradoxes?
Evelyn Teh is a former member of Leaderonomics’ Talent Acceleration Programme (TAP) team. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more articles like this, click here!