Without better understanding our own emotions, strengths, and weaknesses, it is difficult to maintain a sense of how we are affecting others. This is especially true when occupying a leadership position because people are trusting that leader to follow an overall vision. If they are likely to make emotional decisions without being aware of those emotions, they might take on every new attractive opportunity, putting the vision at risk.
This would only be exacerbated by the degree to which the leader’ is unable to admit or acknowledge failure. A more mindful leader could admit to the failure and take responsibility, but perhaps of greater importance, they would have been confident enough in their strengths to know their limitations in the first place before making impulsive decisions.
A Better Metric
What are some attributes of a leader? Committed. Honest. Confident.
But confidence takes a second look. It can be a misleading standard of measurement when it comes to a leader’s optimism about performance and effectiveness. A leader who has a high level of optimism may simply be overconfident in their abilities, displaying poor performance in a particular domain. A leader who performs and a leader who doesn’t will both show confidence.
The key to separating the two types of leaders is in their response to feedback. A confident leader who has a healthy level of self-awareness will be more open to receiving constructive criticism and coaching opportunities. An overoptimistic leader will most likely pass on opportunities to improve, refuting the outcome as either inaccurate or irrelevant. An effective leader can check, and thereby improve upon, their own level of self-awareness by seeking feedback and incorporating it into their skills and strategies.
We must know our weaknesses just as much as our strengths, and further, must expose these weaknesses to those we lead. Knowing when to reveal a particular weakness is a sign of an effective leader, with self-awareness building the bridge between the leader’s behaviors and other people’s reactions. Altogether, self-awareness contributes to a leader’s emotional intelligence, which plays a critical part in their ability to effectively convey messages, recognize motivations, understand emotions, and manage relationships.
The Alternative to Self-Awareness
Throughout my adolescence and into college, I was a gifted student, taking every honors course, participating in extracurricular learning opportunities, and reading as many books as possible. Anyone who knew me then would not deny this so don’t think I’m just boasting. Those very same people would also tell you I had no regard for others, sacrificing relationships for my own selfish needs and limiting my own progress by ignoring feedback. And they would be 100% correct.
Looking back, I recognize my severe lack of self-awareness. I subjected myself to only one point of view, my own, and thus barricaded myself from outside perspective and external criticism. This reached its apex on my 25th birthday when I found myself with a fulltime bartending job and no desire to do anything else with my life. I was sitting at home alone, with no money to go out and having alienated nearly everyone in my life to the point that they did not want to come spend time with me, not even on my birthday. It was eye-opening to the consequences of self-awareness in achieving goals through others.
Self-awareness is now monumentally important to me, both personally and professionally, because I know what it is like to live both with and without it. I can now separate myself from my outcomes, seeing failure as a learning opportunity to improve.
Self-awareness grants us the ability to develop ourselves and in doing so, we are better equipped to work with others. I’ll fully admit to being addicted to feedback now and for those I am closest to, feedback has become part of our growing relationship. The effect doesn’t stop there. In learning about our own self-awareness barriers, we are also more adept to mentor aspiring leaders how to develop their own self-awareness radar, so to speak. Teach a man to fish…
Barriers to Self-Awareness
I’ve previously written about active listening and its barriers. Equally with self-awareness, you are a complex strand of unique DNA and I wouldn’t presume to address what could stand in your way. The process, however, to find those barriers, may be simpler.
How do you currently deal with other people? I have a high input theme, which means I’m a collector of ideas, knowledge, (generic crap if you were to ask my wife) and the like. I also have a high level of extraversion, which means these two attributes create a risk of handling interpersonal situations inappropriately. Without a strong commitment to behavior adjustments, my domineering style of leadership may cause others to shy away from me.
Where do you focus your attention? When it comes to getting things done or seeing the bigger picture, I’m generally a futurist. My vision of what tomorrow can bring can overshadow what is happening right now, along with all the people present. Self-awareness depends on mindfulness in the present moment to see a complex system of emotions and behaviors that affect my performance and that of others. Spending too much mental time in the future (or past) can impede key insights into those complex systems.
What is your go-to leadership style? Before you seriously answer this one, a quick-and-dirty lesson on leadership styles would help: Bookmark this. For now, we’ll move on down the rabbit hole. I have not thoroughly analyzed my experience with different leadership styles, but I have found that I lean towards authoritative (“Come with me!”) more often than not. I found my leadership style. Excellent. What’s the problem? The barrier actually resides in making an accurate self-assessment of our capabilities. Despite outwardly professing a world-changing vision, inwardly I doubt myself sometimes because, frankly, I am afraid of overconfidence. This stems from having spent a quarter-century seeking only positive feedback and dismissing the negative portions. In effect, I overcorrected my behavior too much. So, when we assess our default leadership style, we have to understand why. Otherwise, we’re just a hammer, which makes everything and everyone else around us look like…yeah, you guessed it, a nail.
Gary Vaynerchuck thinks it’s absolutely important to success:
 Sheldon, O. J., Dunning, D., & Ames, D. R. (2014). Emotionally unskilled, unaware, and uninterested in learning more: Reactions to feedback about deficits in emotional intelligence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(1), 125-137.
 Toegel, G., & Barsoux, J. (2012, Spring). How to become a better leader. MIT Sloan Management Review.