You can’t lead yourself if you don't possess self-awareness. And you can’t lead others if you don’t know yourself.
So everything about leadership, at some level, comes back to this idea of self-awareness. But what exactly is that, and how do we arrive there?
What is self-awareness and why does it matter?
Generally, it means you have a sharp awareness of your own personality — including both strengths and weaknesses, areas for growth, motivations, goals, dreams, and factors that hinder you.
While it’s become popular in the last decade to find ‘hacks' for seemingly everything, in reality one of the only ways people become more productive at virtually anything — work and beyond — is by developing more self-awareness.
In much recent research on self-awareness, human beings aren’t doing too great. Consider:
The core problem is that we’re notoriously poor judges of our own capabilities. A 2014 study of 22 meta-analyses (containing over 357,000 people) found an average correlation of .29 between self-evaluations and objective assessments (a correlation of 1.0 would indicate total accuracy). And the correlation was even lower for work-related skills.
What prevents effective self-awareness?
In a professional context, it’s often how work is structured. Work to many is about tasks, KPIs, deliverables, putting out fires, and getting projects out the door. That’s a very rushed, busy culture — which many thrive in. But it doesn’t leave a lot of time for reflecting on self.
Self-awareness also makes us uncomfortable — who truly wants to admit the rough spots of one’s existence?
In those execution-focused cultures described above, many who rise to the leadership ranks can lack self-awareness — and research has shown this makes them harder to coach (not impossible though!), which can remove an avenue for leadership improvement at that organization.
So how do you cultivate self-awareness?
Well, before we get to some strategies, understand this: it will be hard.
But it’s important for sustained growth and success, both professionally and personally. So here are a few ideas:
1. Ask yourself bigger questions:
3 to commence with are:
What’s your story?
What’s your passion?
What’s your pain?
Define how you see yourself (story), where you want to see yourself (passion), and what hinders you or upsets you (pain). Yes, it will be scary and you may have to admit some things to yourself that you’re not comfortable admitting. But it’s important.
I had a client who was in sales. One year he just wasn’t feeling it anymore. He looked at his quotas. In Q3 of the previous year, he had delivered 7% of quota. He knew that was awful and sales wasn’t inspiring him anymore. So he did some serious self-reflection with coaching support. And now he works teaching art at a local public high school and loves it. Does he make as much money? No. But it’s about your passion, your pain, and your story/journey.
2. Become more curious:
Easier said than done, but allow your mind to wonder and wander.
A friend of mine did an ‘Africa Project' on days she was bored. She went country-by-country in Africa and learned as much as she could about that country, including their economy, their culture, their history, etc. She became extremely well-informed about Africa. No one had told her to do this; it wasn’t for a class or anything. She just wanted to learn. At the same time she was doing this, she advanced three tiers at work. No, her job had nothing to do with Africa or humanitarian relief. But in part, her expanded curiosity made her naturally better professionally.
Oh, and you've probably heard this one once or twice: millions saw the apple fall. Only Newton asked why.
Research states that those who are more curious are more comfortable with ambiguity. And that's a very good thing these days.
3. Make a Euler diagram:
I use the pursuit of curiosity in some of the coaching exercises I do. You’ve probably seen something like this from Niklas Göke:
The bottom line on self-awareness
You can go get every leadership book ever, listen to every management podcast, devour self-help sections, and get yourself a coach or 20. All of that will help to some degree, but unless you have self-awareness, nothing will truly stick or click that you do. Self-awareness is the cornerstone brick of sustained professional and personal success. Until that brick is laid, the rest of the foundation is going to be hard to build upon.
Leaders who work with Lisa as their executive leadership coach have seen great results when it comes to maximizing their self-awareness. Perhaps this is the next step for you?