A Great Leader’s Primary Responsibility:
To Be Self-Aware

The foundation stone and sine qua non of Emotional Intelligence is Self-Awareness. It is the basis of great leadership. The kind of leadership that creates a safe environment in which people can freely express themselves, learn together and achieve amazing things. The kind of leadership that inspires commitment, loyalty and love. Leadership that engages employees at all levels.

Let’s explore how self-awareness leads to this kind of leadership:

The practice of Mindfulness is popular these days and is about developing the capacity to observe one’s feelings and thoughts as they flow one’s present reality. The Dalai Lama refers to this observing consciousness as the “fundamental innate wisdom of clear light”. The ability to observe yourself in action is central to being emotionally intelligent. Many people are now applying mindfulness to working in the corporate world.

However, being mindful and self-aware is a state of being not doing. How can we apply self-awareness in a very practical behavioral way to leadership? What skills related to self-awareness can be effectively employed in organizational life?

First, whether you meditate or not, the key is to be ‘present’ at any time and in any place, whatever you’re doing. Pay attention in the moment to the feelings you experience in your body, the emotions, body sensations and the thoughts and judgements that are passing through your mind. This is rich data that can inform your choices around decision making and how you communicate with others, how you manage yourself in the moment. You can practice being present and get better at it over time. And the better you get the more self-aware you’ll become.

Greater self-awareness has practical ramifications in organizational life. If your desire as a leader is to enroll your people in collaborating to create a learning environment it’s important to be aware of the thoughts and feelings that may trigger you to cause negative outcomes. Stress can lead to poor communication behaviors unless you are self-aware enough to know how it’s affecting you and how it can bleed out into the way you speak to others around you. Then you can manage yourself accordingly.

In this respect I distinguish between responding and reacting.

When you react, you are out of control, a victim of your feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. When you respond, you responsibly choose the outcome you want and choose what you say and how you say it to be appropriate to your desired outcome (no matter what feelings, thoughts, or attitudes you may have).

The ability to respond rather than react is a crucial factor in creating a trusting, safe work environment. For example, how can employees feel free to express their innovative ideas or their constructive suggestions if the CEO is defensive or aggressive?

So, very practically, you need to make sure that you listen and acknowledge, no matter what you’re thinking or feeling about comments you don’t agree with. In the heat of the moment decide what kind of communication would be appropriate to the situation. Then make sure that what you say is conducive to a positive outcome for both you and the other person or audience. This means making sure that your tone of voice, facial expressions and body postures are congruent with the message and result you want to achieve. This is emotionally intelligent communication. But it would not be possible without self-awareness.

Paying attention to these elements of yourself are crucial to how successful you are as a leader. I remember a CFO in Silicon Valley who instilled fear in everyone resulting in employees avoiding him even when they had important information to give him. Why were they scared? He never smiled! And he was unaware of this. Once he woke up to this habitual affect he started to smile and suddenly everyone found him so much more approachable and easy to deal with. Colleagues said: “He’s a different person now!”

Apart from being present and mindful, feedback is the most important way in which one can develop self-awareness. A very senior executive at a global bank had a reputation for being a cold, insensitive bully and, criminally, none of her managers had ever given her feedback about her impact. Her behavior was causing massive organizational problems affecting thousands of employees. She spent a very shocking and painful day listening to the verbatim feedback comments of colleagues around her. After this transformational experience her PA, who she reduced to tears on a regular basis, called me to ask what magic I had used to change her. She had gone into the office the day after the feedback session and the executive had hugged her and apologized for all the hurt she had caused. And the culture of polarizing fear and breakdowns in communication across divisions began to disappear to the benefit of the whole global division of the bank. No magic: just powerful feedback had cause this shift in self-awareness.

A Vietnamese General Manager of a biotech firm in Silicon Valley told me trustworthiness was his most important value. When he first entered the hotel room for his feedback session he checked to see if the door to the adjacent room was locked and looked down out of the window. When asked why he did this he said it was to check for possible escape routes. When he heard the feedback he was shocked that the majority of the people he led said he was untrustworthy! It was suggested to him that he was no longer in the war. This massive blind spot and its ramifications for his leadership disappeared as he became conscious of how the conditioning of his past had been determering his behavior in the present.

Of course these are extreme examples of feedback and a learning organization is one in which giving and receiving feedback on a regular basis is encouraged from the top down to engender learning and growth.

The leader sets the tone for a feedback rich culture and his/her job is to minimize fear. Co-creation and collaboration throughout the organization only occurs when you can trust that it’s OK to admit mistakes, as well as take up unpopular positions, criticize ideas, policies and strategies held by others especially senior leaders. This requires the leader to be aware of his or her own defensiveness, insecurity and so on and welcome feedback instead of suppressing and punishing. A leader who is self-aware and employs that awareness effectively in service of his or her organization tends to be compassionate, empathetic, humble, authentic and can laugh at themselves. This endears him or her to people and inspires them to give their best.

A high degree of self-awareness in leaders can make a massive difference to organizational culture and performance.

Michael Banks

written by Michael Banks
Executive Coach and Principal Consultant @PeopleSmart

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