How self-awareness can make us better leaders

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Ever since I started #adulting and having a job, I’ve had the opportunity to work with close to 10 different managers so far. They’ve come from all walks of life and cultures, each with its own unique leadership style.

I feel that leadership styles exist on a continuum between two extremes. On the left, we have people-centric and compassionate leaders. I call them nurturing leaders, mainly because they value collaboration and the learning and development of the people that report to them.

On the other end, we have task-oriented and authoritative leaders. These leaders often exhibit very dominant personas and tend to value getting things done over anything else.

Most people can flex a variety of styles along this axis, but there is often a setting that many tend to default to, or want to aspire to show more of.

Personally, I would like to be in the former camp; I want to get to work with people, instead of simply having people work for me.

I’ve personally experienced this type of leadership when I’ve worked with some of my mentors and managers, and it resonated a lot with me. However, emulating this behaviour wasn’t as simple as just mimicking their actions.

So how should we do it then?

I expected the answer to be something abstract and complex. It wasn’t, and it was staring at me all along; it was self-awareness.

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What is self-awareness?

One of the most referenced definitions of self-awareness comes from psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund in 1972:

"Self-awareness is the ability to focus on yourself and how your actions, thoughts, or emotions do or don't align with your internal standards. If you're highly self-aware, you can objectively evaluate yourself, manage your emotions, align your behaviour with your values, and understand correctly how others perceive you."

The definition might be almost 50 years old at the time of writing this article, but it still resonates with me deeply. In other words, leaders who are highly self-aware can interpret and clarify their values, thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and actions objectively.

Self-awareness is also a fundamental attribute of empathy. According to research conducted by the Eurich Group, this act of introspection allows us to “recognize the effect that we have on others”. The more we are aware of our internal worldview and what influences them, the more likely we are able to be empathetic to people with different perspectives.

Photo credits: seventyfourimages

So how does self-awareness influence leadership?

Developing self-awareness is important because it allows leaders to assess their growth and effectiveness and change course when necessary. It allows us to identify our current state before we can go on to identify opportunities for professional development and personal growth. This skill can then be applied not just to ourselves, but to our teams as well.

With the nature of work today becoming more collaborative and people-oriented, the traditional manager-employee relationship is slowly turning into a business partnership rather than a supervisor-subordinate execution of ideas and strategy.

Modern leaders are also often more enablers than managers. I’ve experienced this a lot in my time at Google, where the managerial effectiveness is largely based on supporting the growth and success of their teams.

It is thus becoming clear that leaders today need to be able to adapt their personal experiences to support their teams accordingly. They need to be able to lead with compassion and empathy so as to be able to relate with their teams. Without a good awareness of themselves, this can turn out to be a huge obstacle instead.

Photo credits: twenty20photos

How can we develop a greater sense of self-awareness?

With our busy schedules, it might be difficult to find time to think about who we are, our values, our motivations, or our strengths and weaknesses. According to organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, only 10-15% of leaders are actually self-aware, despite how many more of them claim to be.

So what can we do to improve our self-awareness to become better leaders then? Eurich shares three findings from her research that can help leaders learn to see themselves more clearly.

(1) Be aware of not just how we see ourselves, but how others see us as well

There are two categories of self-awareness – internal, and external. The former represents how we perceive ourselves, while the latter refers to how well we understand how others perceive us.

What Eurich’s research is suggesting is simply balance; great leaders introspect often to have a firm grasp of their personal identity, and also actively seek out feedback to identify blind spots that they can work on to improve the relationship they have with their peers and employees.

(2) Stay grounded by seeking frequent critical feedback

There’s a common saying among business leaders that goes, “It’s lonely at the top”. With fewer peers and seniors around, it can be difficult to find someone else to provide critical feedback. 

When we get less feedback, we might have a greater tendency to believe that everything might be going smoothly when it might actually be quite the contrary. Eurich cites a separate study that found that higher-level leaders “significantly overvalued their skills” when compared with the perceptions of others.

To help us remain grounded, we should constantly seek out feedback from those around us who have our best interest and are not afraid to be candid and honest with us. This way, we will always have someone to keep us accountable for our actions and not get our heads stuck in the clouds.

(3) Ask what, not why

It is very common for us to ask ourselves why we felt or did things when we are trying to understand our emotions. As Eurich suggests, “why” questions are “surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question(s)”.

Instead, it will be better to ask “what” questions. These questions help us “stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights”. I use “what” questions a lot in my coaching practice, and I found that it often yields interesting and actionable insights that the clients can learn a lot from to change their behaviour.

Photo credits: mstandret

Self-awareness helps leaders see themselves more clearly

With this newfound understanding, it’s easy to see how self-awareness is such a critical component of being an effective leader in today’s world. Being self-aware surfaces opportunities for learning more about who we are, and how we can show up better to others. Perhaps this is probably the key to being a modern leader in today’s world.

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About the author
Terry Toh

Terry Toh

Terry is an aspiring life coach working towards his accreditation by the International Coaching Federation. He loves to read about personal development and entrepreneurship, often with a nice cup of coffee or G&T in hand.
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