The #1 Leadership Skill: Self-Awareness
Updated: Dec 23, 2021
"Self-leadership is about awareness, tolerance, and not letting your own natural tendencies limit your potential." — Scott Belsky
As leaders go, nobody beats Michael Scott for awkward. In the classic series, The Office, Scott's crushing lack of awareness of the impact he's having on the people around him is downright painful to watch—so painful it's hilarious.
So if you're a leader, the good news is: You're probably no where near as clueless as Michael Scott. So...Yay, you!!
But...here's the bad news: You probably are a little like him, at least sometimes. We laugh when we watch Michael Scott because we've all been there. We all know at least one leader who has been pretty clueless about the impact he or she is having on those he or she leads. Only, in real life, the effect is not nearly as funny. Fact is, the most significant blind spot that holds most leaders back from being as effective as they could be is lack of self-awareness.
They are not aware of the unintended impact they have on those they lead.
What is the lingering effect that you have on the people you interact with as a leader? When they walk away from a conversation with you, how do they typically feel about it? For example, do they feel heard? Respected? Overwhelmed? Challenged? Encouraged? Shut down? Condescended to? Loved? If a trusted friend were to ask them what it's like to be in relationship with you, what would they say?
Noticing your impact as a leader is a key aspect of self awareness, and without that awareness, your leadership will be weakened or even crippled in ways that leave you ineffective and often perplexed as to why. One leader I know was perpetually troubled by what he perceived as a stubborn reluctance on the part of his team to communicate with him. They would often hold back vital information regarding projects they were responsible for until just a few days before the deadline, which regularly put him in the difficult position of having to make significant changes to projects at the last minute—a process that was as costly as it was frustrating for everyone involved. What he didn't realize was that his blunt, intense communication style was having the unintended impact of intimidating just about everyone on his team. His people avoided talking with him because they found the interactions threatening in a way that shut down their own creativity and enjoyment...so they put off engaging with him until they absolutely had to.
Fortunately, there are several effective ways to uncover the impact you're having on those you lead. One is to go through a Leadership 360 Coaching Program (I offer a terrific one through The Leadership Circle; read more about it here). Another is to take a look at your unconscious drives and motivations through a personality assessment (I personally really love the Enneagram for Leaders; again, more info here).
As a third option, if you are confident trust levels are generally high between you and your team, you can also try the following approach. However, as with all honest self-examination, this approach will require both courage and authentic humility:
1. Make a list of five or six people in your world that you trust and believe will be honest with you. Some of these should be people you lead, but also include a few people who don't work with you directly—perhaps a friend or two, or even a spouse.
2. Meet with each person privately. Let them know that you are genuinely interested in learning how to be a better leader, and to do that you need to ask them a few questions that you want them to answer as honestly as possible. Get their agreement on this before proceeding.
3. Ask them the following questions. Do not get defensive or justify yourself in any way. Just listen, take it in, and thank them for their honesty.
What's it really like to be in relationship with me?
What impact do you notice that I typically have on people that I lead?
What negative impact do I have on others that I am typically unaware of?
Remember, it takes true humble leadership to do this. People will be able to sense whether you authentically want to hear the truth. Very often, they will have much more to say about your positive impact on others than they will about the negative. Still, you must choose to be teachable, and earnestly seek out their feedback. Whatever insights come from those conversations, be quick to take actions to correct any behaviors that get in the way of your effectiveness. You will be a better leader, and your people will respect you for taking an honest look at your impact.
P.S. If you want to read more on developing the skill of self awareness, I recommend you start here:
Leadership and Self Deception by The Arbinger Institute
Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Bradberry, Greaves, and Lencioni