3 ways leaders become self-aware

You cannot become a great leader without self-awareness.  Self-awareness is the ability to accept and proactively use feedback about oneself to improve leadership skills. 

Self-aware leaders are able to respond appropriately to people and situations. Successful leadership involves taking people on a journey into an uncertain future. Leadership is not something that can be achieved by following a step-by-step recipe. Rather leadership demands you experiment, reflect, learn and adapt to a constantly changing environment. 

Self-awareness is the foundation of leadership character, authenticity, trust, courage and purpose. Self-awareness helps us understand our strengths and weaknesses and where we need help from others. 

The challenge with the advice for leaders to “know yourself” by developing self-awareness is that no one tells you how to do it properly.While many discuss the importance of self-awareness, few provide a practical way for leaders to act on this advice. 

In this post, we’ll explore three practical ways leaders can develop their self-awareness. 

1. Develop a personal leadership philosophy

“In order to live, man must act; in order to act, he must make choices; in order to make choices, he must define a code of values; in order to define a code of values, he must know what he is and where he is—i.e., he must know his own nature (including his means of knowledge) and the nature of the universe in which he acts—i.e., he needs metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, which means: philosophy. He cannot escape from this need; his only alternative is whether the philosophy guiding him is to be chosen by his mind or by chance.” — Ayn Rand, 1966, “Philosophy and Sense of Life”

Consistent leadership action and behaviour requires a leader to have a clear leadership philosophy. 

A leadership philosophy consists of a set of beliefs, values and principles used to guide decisions, choices and behaviour. A personal leadership philosophy is your view as to what makes for great leadership, it affects how you react to people, events and situations. It provides the foundation from which to lead. 

Leaders use their leadership philosophy as a means to guide their thinking, to adjust their behaviour and correct their actions. It provides the guardrails to nudge you back on track when necessary. A leadership philosophy reveals your mistakes and encourages the self-awareness you need to motivate personal change. 

The development of a personal leadership philosophy requires answering the following questions. 

  • How do you personally define leadership? 
  • Who are the leaders you admire? Why? 
  • What have been some of the defining leadership experiences in your life? 
  • What are the key leadership lessons you would teach to others? 
  • What impact do you want to make in the world? 
  • What are your values? What do you stand for? 
  • What is your purpose? 
  • What are the fundamental values, beliefs and principles you use to guide your leadership?

Do you have a leader leadership philosophy that serves as a foundation for your choices and actions? 

If not set aside some time over the next two weeks to write your answers to these questions in the form of a brief manifesto

As a leader it’s your responsibility to return regularly to your philosophical foundation as a guide for your leadership journey. 

2. Seek regular feedback

“Nearly 66% of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, while 100% of them stated that they are receptive to making changes based on feedback.” — David F. Larcker, Stephen Miles, Brian Tayan, Michelle E. Gutman, 2013 Executive Coaching Survey

Feedback provides the essential information leaders need to assess the gap between how they see themselves and how they’re perceived by others. The use of feedback based on external appraisal is necessary to help leaders with the process of self-awareness, reflection and change. 

All leaders have traits that others see, which they’re unable to see themselves. Feedback is one way leaders can identify blind spots, breakout of thinking patterns and ingrained habits. Blind spots are best uncovered by seeking out honest feedback from people you trust. 

“Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.” — Stephen Miles, CEO of The Miles Group, 2013 Executive Coaching Survey

There are a number of ways leaders can go about getting feedback as to how they’re showing up. One way is to conduct formal 360 degree multi-rater assessments with peers, superiors and direct reports who provide anonymous feedback on your behaviour. Some well-regarded 360 degree feedback assessments are the following: 

An alternative and less costly approach is to gather informal feedback by asking questions of the people who know you well. To do this pick five to ten people you trust, include friends, family, peers, your boss and direct reports. Next is to send them an email explaining you are looking for honest feedback for personal development purposes and ask them to answer the following three questions: 

  1. What are my greatest strengths?
  2. What are my greatest weaknesses?
  3. What do people say about me when I’m not in the room?

Review the responses you receive looking for comments can help you to identify areas you need to improve. 

The last way to improve your self-awareness is through what Peter Drucker described as feedback analysis

”The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis. Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practicing this method for 15 to 20 years now, and every time I do it, I am surprised. The feedback analysis showed me, for instance—and to my great surprise—that I have an intuitive understanding of technical people, whether they are engineers or accountants or market researchers. It also showed me that I don’t really resonate with generalists.” — Peter F. Drucker, Managing Oneself

Peter Drucker’s feedback analysis is a great way to gain insight into your strengths. 

3. Develop a regular practice of reflection

”By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” — Confucius (551-479 BC) 

This quote from the Chinese teacher, politician, and philosopher Confucius makes clear the importance of reflection in learning from experience. Taking time to reflect on our actions is critical to develop wisdom and self-awareness. 

Let’s explore some ways to help you get started with the practice of reflection. 

You can reflect in many different ways. Some people keep a journal, others reflect by walking, when driving or when taking a shower. We all have gaps in our day that we can use to reflect. One of the best ways of developing a habit of reflection is through the practice of journaling. Self-awareness is developed when you record and reflect on personal events in your life. Reflecting on your behaviour and emotional reactions provides a rich source of personal development. 

“Solitude is the one place where we gain freedom from the forces of society that will otherwise relentlessly mold us” — John Ortberg, from his book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted”

Reflection is about thinking and questions are the tools that help our brains think. We have an opportunity at the end of each day to reflect and learn from the day’s events. In my own life I have started a practice of reflecting on my day with a short evening journal entry using the following questions to guide the process. 

  • What three things that went well today?
  • What did I learn today?
  • What did I enjoy?
  • What kind act did I do? Who did I help?
  • What am I grateful for?

Successful leaders learn something new every day. A practice of daily reflection is one of the more powerful tools to help you become more effective in all areas of your life. 

Your turn

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” — E.E. Cummings, Poet

Developing self-awareness as a leader is a daily practice. Like a muscle it grows over time with constant use. The more you are aware of your motives, desires, emotions whilst remaining clear as to your personal leadership philosophy the faster you develop as a leader.