The Art of Self-Awareness in Leadership


Carolyne Njogu


5 min read

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Creating a unifying vision is critical to furthering any initiative or championing any cause. Your ability to rally others around a common goal depends largely on whether your vision is simple, audacious, compelling and inspirational enough.

Most leaders are thought to be visionaries because they seem to have the uncanny ability to unite others behind their vision. What makes these individuals adept in their leadership is not charm – although some do have it – but rather, their self-awareness. 

Effective leaders are well-attuned to who they are. They are in touch with their strengths and weaknesses, and have mastered the art of knowing when to be what and to whom. Self-awareness is fundamental to influence, and visionary leaders are great at seeing themselves as those they lead see them. 

What is self-awareness?

Dr Travis Bradberry, the author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, describes self-awareness as “one of the core components of emotional intelligence”. He defines emotional intelligence as “your ability to recognise and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behaviour and relationships”. Fundamentally, self-awareness is self-discovery. 

Developing self-awareness is critical to effective leadership because it sets the foundation upon which all other leadership competencies are built. To lead effectively, one needs to demonstrate self-control, empathy, good judgment, teamwork and trust – these are all impossible to embody unless one has done the inner work, i.e. cultivating self-awareness. 

Arguably, self-awareness and vision are not mutually exclusive. One must have clarity of what one wants to create or the initiative they want to bring to bear first, before sharing that vision with their stakeholders for buy-in. Only then can they manifest their new realities. 

This may sound easy but self-awareness at every level of visionary thinking, communication, sharing, and broadcasting is vital. One needs to be audacious enough to take on the self-discovery journey inwardly first. 

Society now lives in the world of the Internet and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and the like. Amid all these distractions, how can one attain self-awareness? 

1. Self-discovery

Curiosity is where it all starts. 

Start by asking yourself interrogative questions, for example: 

  • How do I show up every day? 
  • What do I want to be remembered for? 
  • Who do I want to become? 
  • Do I blame or judge others? 
  • Is there a better perspective than my own out there? 
  • Why do I feel insecure with this person or when undertaking this task?

Curiosity killed the cat, but knowledge brought it back.

By being interested in yourself and seeking to understand your own experiences, behaviours and motives, you reveal your true self, and it offers you a window to see yourself in other humans too, thus cultivating empathy and trust. 

A leadership expert once remarked, “Great leaders demonstrate concern for others, that they have good judgment, that they can be trusted. People follow leaders whom they believe in. This is where the much-touted ‘authenticity’ fits in.”

2. Self-reflection

Now that you know how you show up, how can you monitor your behaviour to best adjust and advance your vision?

Self-reflection is the art of examining your thoughts, attitudes and behaviours in solitude. This allows you to unravel who you truly are and gives you the opportunity to edit behaviour that is self-limiting. Activities such as meditation and journaling are very helpful to encourage reflection. 

In the classic Harvard Business Review article, Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker wrote: “Whenever you make a decision or take a key decision, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the results with what you expected.” 

This type of exercise allows you to understand your inner motives and your prowess in decision-making – or lack thereof. This crucial information allows you to tweak yourself to be more aligned with your vision.

3. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is inevitable if you are open to self-discovery and self-reflection. While this journey may seem like common sense, it’s extremely challenging to master because we humans don’t always commit to facing the truth about our shortcomings. 

Nevertheless, for those committed to their self-discovery, they invariably adhere to the ‘trinity of self-awareness’: know thyself, improve thyself, and complement thyself

Cultivating self-awareness

The more self-aware you are, the more of an authentic and efficient leader you become. To cultivate a keen sense of self-awareness, you can add a few techniques to your repertoire of skills in self-discovery and self-reflection to get to where you want to be. 

Evidently, being willing to ask yourself the hard questions is a necessary step; however, to improve you will need to seek candour from others around you, because the ego in human nature tends to either magnify or minimise how we see ourselves. 

Here are some ways you can gather more data about yourself:

● Feedback: Ask your close friends and family to describe how you show up, and ask those you serve or work with what draws them to work with you (360-degree feedback)

● Take self-assessment tests: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Kolbe Index, Enneagram, DISC, StrengthsFinder, and StandOut are a few examples of personality assessments that will help you understand yourself better

● Vision, values and priorities: Design and plan your life or what you want to create

The purpose here is to help you embrace the totality of who you are – to ‘know thyself’ and ‘own your power’. 

Benefits of being self-aware

The benefits of self-awareness are vast. It enriches the whole person, irrespective of who you are. Even the Greek philosophers understood this and believed that ‘know thyself’ was the highest form of knowledge. 

Benefits of self-awareness and vision include:

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and how they impact your performance

Knowing what situations and environments (culture) complement your nature

Boosting your emotional and social intelligence (EQ and SQ)

Improved decision-making and critical thinking skills

Better communication and relationship skills

Enhanced leadership abilities and capacity

Improved focus on things that matter 

Self-awareness also improves a person’s character – as working towards a vision is a lifetime endeavour, your values guide you daily to the envisioned future while keeping you in check and with the conviction to stay focused. 

Self-awareness and visionaries in history

Today, we regard a few historical leaders as great visionaries, but these leaders were flawed just as we are. Winston Churchill was one such leader. 

He embodied courage and resilience, and openly embraced his weaknesses. It is recorded that he spent a lot of time alone and endured rejection due to his bluntness. History also records that despite his shortcomings, Churchill always put the country before himself and had a vision, a big heart and a great sense of care.   

Human beings are complex and diverse, and self-awareness is critical if you expect to lead and influence others effectively. Seeing yourself as you are and as others see you humbles and empowers you at the same time. This mirror effect is what enables us to form psychological bonds and connections with others. 

Leaders should cultivate emotional and social intelligence in form of self-awareness to empower themselves to lead from a place of humility, and realise that more than leading, their role is to be in the service of those who follow them.


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