After thirty years in the leadership business, first as an executive and then as a leadership consultant, I am frequently asked ‘What makes a leader great?’ I’ve had years to observe and correlate competencies and behaviors to leadership effectiveness. While many competencies are essential, one that comes before all others is self-awareness.

Why self-awareness? Without a proven ability to get him or herself out of the way in a given situation, a leader cannot be fully available to the people or the situation at hand.

During an airport layover several years ago, I spotted this billboard: “Gophers burrow their way through life without seeing the messes they leave behind them.”

Many of us are like gophers, busily going through life, doing our best, yet completely unaware of the impact we are having on those around us.

As leaders it is our role to cultivate an environment in which people excel. This environment must provide individuals with a sense of purpose and groundedness. Without exhibiting self-awareness, many leaders may in fact be contributing to workplace drama and strain rather than creating the calm, spacious atmosphere people need to perform optimal work.

Reflecting Self-Awareness Through Leadership Behaviors

Leadership may be made more effective through practice of these self-aware behaviors:

  1. Notice and own up to the impact your attitudes and actions have on yourself and others.
  2. Responsibly handle your emotions and your reactions to others’ behaviors.
  3. Master your emotional competence in order to view situations more clearly. Do not allow your projections to cloud and warp your decisions.
  4. When you are most available emotionally and mentally to respond to an issue, respond in a manner that is most likely to realize desired outcomes. Ask yourself the following:
  • What is my commitment to in this situation?
  • What outcome do I want for myself?
  • What outcome do I want for others?
  • What outcome will strengthen my relationships with others?

Self-Awareness Benefits

When we practice self-awareness and look to ourselves first as the source of upset and dissatisfaction in our lives, we stop projecting our own issues on others and see what we are bringing to a situation. When we then access the power to change ourselves and our own reactions, we practice self-management and can better resolve interpersonal upsets. We no longer wait for others to recognize their faults and expect them to change.

This shift in perspective can inspire powerful actions.

This subtle yet very important shift in perspective can inspire powerful actions that will achieve the outcomes we are looking for. From this effort, regardless of outcome, we may experience the satisfaction of acting in accordance with our inner knowing.

We find relationships automatically improving. We find more harmony in our lives and less drama. This is accompanied by more authenticity. All of these things serve as a foundation for both great leadership and a highly satisfying life.

Contrasting Leadership Examples

Monty, an executive, is not at all self-aware. He blames others for company issues and for his poor relationships with them. People credit him with brilliance and creativity; they also view him as distant, critical and uncommunicative.

He knows something is amiss, but not what it might be. Instead of seeking opportunities to change his approach, he insists that others change first. As a result, his company’s results decline so precipitously that he is replaced.

Abby, another leader, is tone deaf to the impact she has on the people around her. While she knows she needs to change, she does not know what to change or how to do it.

As a high-performer, she applies her drive to learning how to be a more self-aware leader. She is willing to try new approaches, be vulnerable, and take a perceived risk. She has asked for, and received, feedback regarding her impact on others.

She learns to examine her own behavior first, and only then, take action. Abby grows into her leadership role and is now regarded as a highly effective leader.

While working with administrators in an elementary school, I noticed this sign on a wall: “Our Promise to Each Other: When we care about each other and our classroom, we are kind and respectful, we listen carefully, help each other learn, always try our best, raise our hand and have fun together. We keep our hands and feet to ourselves. We stand up for ourselves and each other. When someone asks us to stop, we stop. We do all of this even when no one is watching.”

These lessons in self-awareness and self-management apply to six year olds and corporate executives alike.


Barbara Osterman
About The Author Barbara Osterman [Full Bio]
Barbara Osterman, founder and owner of Human Solutions LLC, is a business leadership consultant and cultural catalyst. She supports organizations in increasing business performance and results by successfully weaving business initiatives and culture transformations.

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