When I talk about exemplary leadership and what it means to me, I often use words like trust, empathy, sincerity, humility, tolerance, and so on. Linked to positive behaviours and attitudes, these words get the best out of people and relationships generally.

But, I often hear leaders talking about these words and espousing their value but then not walking the talk. To be fair, that includes me from time to time if I am being honest. We know what we should be doing at an intellectual level but then struggle to put it into action. at a practical level. Life and circumstances are always conspiring against us. Pushing those buttons that tip us over to the dark side!

So, let’s take a look at how self-awareness can help us overcome our slide to the dark side.

What is self-awareness?

I’m not planning to get overly scientific, spiritual or academic about a definition. Instead, I’ll tell you what it means to me in practice at work. Self-awareness is a willingness to look inwards to try and discover how and why what we do is shaping the world around us. To accept the fact that just because we see things one way, may not be reality. It’s just our perspective.

Why is a lack of self-awareness a problem?

Great leaders create the conditions that enable individuals, teams and organisations to flourish. They are the catalyst which can be a force for good or ill.

I often say to my clients that we are like a mirror. How we behave and our attitude are simply mirrored by those we lead. If we are grumpy, they are grumpy. If we don’t understand the goals, they will not understand the goals. Really, it is not that complicated in principle.

But, we struggle because we are not sufficiently aware of the conditions we are creating. It is far easier to sit in our ivory tower and look at all the external factors that we believe are stifling success rather than consider the role we may play in the outcomes being achieved.

The road to self-awareness

Some may say ignorance is bliss. “Why didn’t I take the red pill” for those that love the film, The Matrix!
But, I would argue that the less reliable the information or the greater the extent we do not understand, the less likely we are to develop strategies that work. “Garbage in, garbage out” is a truism.

You can see the appeal of ignorance though. What we don’t know can’t harm us. It is all about not wanting to be challenged or confronted by our fears. We would rather live within the comfortable reality of our mind (i.e. protect our ego) than face the scary reality of the real world.

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be” – May Sarton

So, don’t be surprised that becoming self-aware is far harder than talking about becoming self-aware! This is why it is an exemplary leadership practice. It is practised because it is the right thing to do and not because it is comfortable!

Self-awareness Exemplary Leadership

Self-awareness in practice

Some come to self-awareness in different ways. For me, it has been my “Mindfulness” journey over the past 15 years, for others their faith, and some facing an existential threat to their life. Once the lid of Pandora’s Box is lifted, though, there is no going back. You took the blue pill!

So you may see this self-awareness as a willingness to constantly challenge assumptions and reality, to embrace learning and development, accept the “humanness” in people even when what we witness isn’t pleasant. As we recognise, accept and are willing to confront our own shortcomings, so are we much more forgiving and tolerant of shortcoming (humanness) in others.

My personal view is that we also need to accept and become comfortable with our own vulnerabilities. Even allow others to see our vulnerabilities in appropriate circumstances. Scary I know but you will connect to others in a way that would otherwise not have been possible and it will enrich your life. In many ways, Covid will have given some people the first glimpse of this.

Am I a great leader?

What a great question. What a challenging question! Ask yourself – how am I you reaching my answer? From my ego (my mind’s perception of reality) or self-awareness?

For those I have the pleasure of working with as a Coach and Trainer, I make no apology for highlighting the critical importance of self-awareness to their development as a leader or manager. You can imagine, I do face some challenges along the way. “What do you mean my reality is not reality? Of course it is. My mind is never wrong as it is very clever indeed!”.

For many, the prospect of sharing their vulnerabilities, accepting that they are less than perfect, or that their self-perception differs significantly from the perception of others, is too much. Too scary or too painful. This is where I come in, of course. I join them on their journey, walking along beside them, supporting, guiding, encouraging and challenging when needed, as their self-awareness grows.

As for me, being consistently self-aware remains a journey of a lifetime. I know so much, yet so little. But I take comfort in the fact that my mind is always open to the infinite possibilities that are out there.