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Self-Awareness as a Leader

Originally published on November 2, 2016

This is 17th in the Blog series on Executive Leadership

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

– Carl Jung

The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”

― Michel de Montaigne

Organizations benefit more from leaders who take responsibility for what they don’t know than from leaders who pretend to know it all. Of all the least discussed competencies of a leader, perhaps the most valuable is self-awareness. This is, as the opening phrase stated, understanding the things at which you excel while acknowledging those things that one still needs to learn—this includes admitting when you don’t have all the answers or if you have made an error. 

Exercising this kind of self-awareness can be difficult in the competitive environment of many workplaces. In fact, many people—at all levels of an organization—often operate with a mindset that any time they show a weakness, lack of knowledge or understanding, or make an error, that others will instantly make the assumption that the employee does not have the requisite abilities. Allowing a workplace environment such as this could serve to diminish our effectiveness as a leader.

Whether or not you acknowledge your weaknesses, everyone may still see them. So rather than conceal them, the person who tries to hide weaknesses actually highlights them, creating the perception of a lack of integrity and self-awareness. Musselwhite (2007) provided five qualities and activities that help leaders understand—and operationalize—principles of self-awareness.

The Benefits of Self-awareness. It’s easy to see how pretending to know everything when you don’t can create situations that can be problematic for your entire organization. On the other hand, when you take responsibility for what you don’t know, you benefit both yourself and your organization.

On an interpersonal level, self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses can net you the trust of others and increase your credibility — both of which will increase your leadership effectiveness.

On an organizational level, the benefits are even greater. When you acknowledge what you have yet to learn, you’re modeling that in your organization it’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers, to make mistakes and most importantly, to ask for help. These are all characteristics of an organization that is constantly learning and springboards to innovation and agility — two hallmarks of high-performing organizations.

Know When Strength Might Be Played Out. Most likely, your strengths are what got you to this point in your career. As your role in your organization changes, you must be careful not to overplay a former strength to the point that it actually becomes a weakness. For example, let’s say you’re great with detail and have done good things for your organization as an individual contributor and get rewarded with a management role. Continuing to delve into the details once you’re responsible for projects and people will cause you to lose ground with (1) your reports, who will feel unnecessary; and (2) your superiors, who may rethink your readiness for managerial responsibility.

Acknowledging the need to become better at anything is only the beginning, and it’s often the most difficult step in the whole process. In many cases, individuals successfully come to the realization that something’s not working but have no clue how to change it into something that works. This difficulty to see in yourself what others see so easily is what makes the path to self-awareness so challenging. One way to get started is by soliciting and listening to feedback from those who work with you.

Solicit feedback. There are several ways you can get feedback about your work performance. Formally, you can get it through 360 multi-rater assessments. In a 360, peers, superiors and reports anonymously provide feedback on all aspects of your behavior.

Informally, you can make time once a day to reflect on the day’s events, e.g. how people reacted to you, how fluidly you were able to work with or manage others, etc. To do this effectively on your own requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence, or EQ as it’s often called, is defined as awareness of your own and others’ emotions, and how they are impacted by situations. Some people are simply born with a high EQ but with diligent introspection it can be cultivated to a degree in everyone.

If you fall into the latter category, another more practical method that falls somewhere in between the formality of a 360 and the informality of quiet daily reflection is to get in the habit of doing regular post-mortems on every project in which you are involved. In order to do this effectively, however, you must learn to do two things: ask good questions, and listen without justifying or defending your actions.

Ask good questions. The skill of asking good questions can be invaluable to you and your organization. When the question is about your own performance, however, it can be harder to be objective about negative feedback. When you show that you are equally open to all types of feedback, you demonstrate self-awareness and the willingness to learn. Asking questions models a solid, transparent approach to problem-solving and decision-making that benefits everyone in an organization. But perhaps most importantly, it models that it’s okay not to know everything, which encourages everyone that it is okay to be constantly learning.

By modeling habits of good self-awareness, you help to create a more self-aware organization. An organization that is self-aware is open to learning and better equipped to adjust quickly to changes as the marketplace dictates. This ability is the defining characteristic of a learning organization and possibly the most compelling reason all managers at all levels should include self-awareness in their development goals.

Listen without justifying. Once you’ve solicited feedback it’s crucial that you listen without justifying your actions or people will stop giving you feedback. Moreover, when you are busy defending your actions, you miss what the person is trying to tell you. If on the other hand you listen and accept feedback without defending yourself, you’re more likely to hear what you need to hear, increasing your credibility with the person giving you feedback and creating a trust bond that will enable them to continue providing useful feedback in the future.

How Self-Aware are You?

No doubt most of us would answer with confidence that we are pretty darn self-aware. Before you take self-awareness off your development radar screen, consider this: According to research* on management styles, you’re more likely to be unaware of your behavior and how it impacts others if normally tend to operate at the extremes.

For example, at one extreme are the “Originators.” Originators tend to be quick decision-makers who aren’t afraid of confrontation or taking risks. On the other end of the spectrum you’ll find “Conservers.” Conservers are much more rule-bound and conflict- and change-averse. Most people fall somewhere in between these two extremes and are aptly labeled as “Pragmatists.” Pragmatists don’t either seek out or avoid confrontation. More practical and flexible, they tend to focus on issues in the order in which they need to be resolved.

So if you identify more with the descriptions of the Originator or Conserver, this may be an indicator that you are not as self-aware as you think you are. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of management styles, the benefits of greater self-awareness should be incentive enough to consistently seek (and listen to) as much feedback as possible on your performance at work.

Putting Self-Awareness into Practice

When you pretend to know it all and never admit mistakes, you model behavior that can have negative consequences for yourself and your entire organization. Conversely, when you are self-aware enough to openly admit missteps and concede that you still have plenty to learn, you turn mistakes into learning opportunities and give people permission to be collaborative without fear of appearing unqualified.

To begin to increase your self-awareness, seek feedback on your performance from others by asking good questions and listening without justifying or defending your actions. Remember, organizations benefit far more from leaders who take responsibility for what they don’t know than from leaders who pretend to know it all.


* Based on the responses of 41,000 managers to The Change Style Indicator® over the past two decades.

The preceding discussion of five points of self-awareness as a leader was quoted—with minor editorial changes—from “Self-Awareness and the Effective Leader” (Musselwhite, 2007)


Next week will be the 18th post in the series: Skill Set Development.


Musselwhite, C. (2007). Self awareness and the effective leader. Inc. Lead. Retrieved from



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