Adaptive Leaders: Self-awareness

As a man thinks within himself, so he is.” – King Solomon

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”- Winston Churchill

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s great book, “The Leadership Challenge,” makes the case for leadership as a learnable skill set. Their point is that anyone can be a leader if they learn and apply the skills.  One’s leadership is a habit of mind first of all, and then a set of habitual behaviors.  “How we think within our-selves is how we behave” is an idea that guides so much of the world of human behavior and interactions.  This idea comes from the Bible (Proverbs 23:7), and it drives much of cognitive behavior therapy and its therapeutic progeny.  It drives much of the self-help literature and most of the successful practical training programs, including military training.

In discussing the habits of effective leadership it is profitable to begin with the habits of mind, the way we think about ourselves, others, and leadership.  Following are two critical habits of mind necessary for effective leadership.

Self-awareness.  Developing self-awareness is perhaps the most foundational of the habits of mind.   The critical feature of being good at the people skills of effective leadership – and leadership is at its core about people – is the ability to look inward, to think deeply about your behavior and consider how it aligns with your morals, standards and values. Self-awareness is one of the most important qualities you can have as a leader. As the saying goes, “It is wisdom to know others, but it is enlightenment to know one’s self” (Lao Tzu).  When leaders are deficient in self-reflection and self-awareness, they have no capacity for learning from their mistakes or indexing their responses to the emotional situation of others.  In other words, they will grow only with great difficulty, and will lack empathy in their dealings with others.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” –  Carl Jung

What does leadership without self-awareness look like from the outside?

  • Without self-awareness, one lacks a healthy capacity for growth as a person. If you are not aware of your actions and the impact they have on others and on outcomes, there is no basis for personal growth or skill realignment.
  • A lack of self-awareness leads to externalizing problems. In other words, such a leader will not assume responsibility for their errors but will consistently find other people or circumstances on which to pin the blame.
  • People with no self-awareness regularly offend and even wound the people with whom they interact.
  • If one is not aware of the implications of personal actions, they will struggle to achieve success in areas related to human relationships and in building up others.
  • Such people often utilize manipulation skills as a survival scheme because of the problems above and will work to make manipulation pass for leading effectively.

The world of unsuccessful leadership is populated heavily by people who lacked self-awareness and the ability to self-correct, learn from mistakes, take advice, and build up others. Lacking empathy, remorse, responsibility for their own actions, genuineness, authenticity, and usually integrity leaves these “leaders” to flounder. Their legacy is one of wounded people and squandered opportunities in both their personal and professional lives.

“Self-awareness is our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.” – Stephen Covey

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