From gaining the deep respect of team members to consistently delivering measurable business results, effective leadership — across industries — consists of a myriad of characteristics, strategies and skills. However, one trait proves universal in leaders of all kinds: self-awareness.
What is Self-Awareness?
Merriam-Webster defines self-awareness as “an awareness of one’s own personality or individuality,” but developing this attribute is harder than it seems from that definition. Cam Caldwell, Ph.D., an author and professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says, “Self-awareness is an effort. It’s a conscious effort to invest in understanding who we are, who others are, our universal rules that [we] apply in life and our commitment to the future.” For leaders struggling to develop self-awareness, Caldwell advises, “It takes work and willingness to recognize that reality is truth.”
Self-awareness is one of the key elements of emotional intelligence (EI), a term coined by psychologist Michael Beldoch and widely popularized by Daniel Goleman that refers to a person’s ability to identify and manage their emotions and identify and influence others’ emotions. Often, developing self-awareness as a leader is also the first step in developing EI — which has proven particularly valuable in leadership.
An article by keynote speaker and author Brent Gleeson highlights the importance of EI in leaders: “The ability to be perceptively in tune with yourself and your emotions, as well as having sound situational awareness can be a powerful tool for leading a team.” So, not only does self-awareness work to make leaders more cognizant of their actions, emotions and biases — it helps them develop greater EI in the process.
Developing self-awareness as a leader will strengthen not only individual performance but organizational performance as well. Ultimately, the immense amount of understanding, trustworthiness and wisdom that self-aware leaders possess equips them with critical skills for success.
“We’re committed to becoming excellent because we’re committed to the moral obligation we have to care about others…[and] to make a better world,” Caldwell says of self-aware leaders. “We sense this moral requirement that is part of humility that engages us and motivates us to invest in not only ourselves but in others and their opportunity to improve.”
Characteristics of Self-aware Leaders
Caldwell credits humility as one of the most important character traits associated with self-aware leaders. “Humility is a correct understanding of oneself, and that correct understanding leads to a better understanding of others — because once we love ourselves, we better learn to appreciate others as well.”
Gustavo Razzetti, author of “Stretch for Change” and “Stretch Your Mind” and CEO of Liberationist, a change leadership company, also notes the importance of developing humility as a leader. He says that “intellectual humility,” which is “knowing that you don’t know everything — first about yourself, second about others and, then, about the world,” is another trait self-aware leaders should strive to develop. Although practicing humility in the workplace does require a certain amount of vulnerability, which can be anxiety-inducing, it helps create an environment where everyone feels comfortable acknowledging his or her flaws and asking for help.
In addition to being humble, self-aware leaders are constantly looking to improve. They recognize their own strengths, weaknesses and hidden biases and take accountability for them, and they consistently ask for feedback in order to improve. Whether by requesting 360-degree feedback from team members on a regular basis or investing in a continuing professional development program, self-aware leaders recognize the value of continuous learning and growth. Razzetti shares, “Self-aware leaders, because they’re more humble, know that they are not perfect. So, not only are they open to feedback, but they’re constantly asking, ‘What can I do better?’”
Another way leaders can work to become more self-aware is by making a conscious effort to forgive. “Truly wise leaders are very willing to forgive,” Caldwell says. “They forgive themselves; they recognize that we don’t live in a world that’s perfect. They know that no one’s perfect.”
Organizational Benefits of Self-aware Leadership
By becoming more self-aware, and subsequently recognizing their strengths, weaknesses and hidden biases, leaders gain the trust of their team members — and increase their own credibility. Additionally, a culture of self-awareness advances learning and development (L&D) by promoting the value of continuous growth and development. Razzetti says, “When people are self-aware, they can put their tensions on the table, and no one gets hurt, because we’re trying to improve. So, we have this culture of continuous improvement, and we don’t take things personally.”
L&D professionals should encourage leaders to use 360-degree feedback surveys, regular check-ins with team members and self-reflection to help them become more self-aware. In fact, in an interview with the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, David Geveorkyan (district manager of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation) credits self-reflection as pivotal in helping him gain self-awareness as a leader: “Through the self-reflection process, you get to dive deep within your inner world and subconscious mind. You are able to better evaluate who you are as an individual and how you interact with the environment that you’ve placed yourself in.”
In addition to helping leaders develop professionally, self-awareness also helps them have a positive impact on the business. For one, teams led by self-aware leaders are less likely to experience internal conflict. “In the end, a culture of self-awareness creates a space where people can address their tensions in a more open and less friction-based way,” Razzetti says.
Additionally, a study by Korn Ferry Institute directly connected self-aware leaders to business results, finding that “leaders who are self-aware are more likely to be high-performing, to meet their business goals, and save on turnover costs.”
Striving for More
Self-aware leaders strive for more than individual success. They want to use their expertise and passion to enact change on a large scale. In order to make a lasting difference, however, leaders must first use their sense of self-awareness to objectively determine areas they need to improve. “We have to have that clarity about what is and what is not true and be willing to embrace it and accept it and look at it as a resource to make our lives greater, and make the world greater — which, again, is our whole responsibility [as self-aware leaders],” Caldwell notes.
At its core, self-awareness offers leaders far more than another tool for success. It helps them remember why they wanted to become leaders in the first place. It helps them discover, and live, the impact they want to have, not just on their team members — or even on their organizations — but on the world. And, that is a leader worth following.