Of all the skills an executive needs to successfully lead a business, self-awareness ranks near the top of the list. Leaders who have an understanding of their own emotions, personality, strengths and weaknesses can better engage with employees and clients.
Research by Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux, as reported by MIT Sloan Management Review, is a good example of its importance: “A survey of 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council rated self-awareness as the most important capability for leaders to develop. Executives need to know where their natural inclinations lie in order to boost them or compensate for them. Self-awareness is about identifying personal idiosyncrasies — the characteristics that executives take to be the norm but actually represent the exception.”
Here’s a look at how executives can develop self-awareness and benefit from it.
Questions and feedback
Executives who are on the path to self-awareness will have to reach out to others in the organization to help them assess how they are doing and how they are perceived. While this may include some initially awkward moments, getting real feedback can have positive results. Writing for Inc.com, Chris Musselwhite explains that it’s vital that leaders ask good questions about their own performance.
“When you show that you are equally open to all types of feedback, you demonstrate self-awareness and the willingness to learn,” Musselwhite says. “Plus, 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’s okay to be constantly learning.”
There are a variety of ways in which curiosity can benefit CEOs, including continuing to learn and grow as a leader and developing innovative concepts. Open-minded leaders can boost their self-awareness by learning more about the people within the business. Psychologist and author Sherrie Campbell shared this advice in a story for Business News Daily:
“When you have the ability to regulate your own emotional world, you can be attuned the emotions of others. To be a successful leader, you have to be curious about new people and all they have to offer. This shows that you can be a team player, and don’t need to be No. 1. The more open you are to others, the more creative you become.”
It’s only natural for employees to watch — and judge — leaders’ emotions at work. How will they react to a significant achievement or a big mistake? How will they show appreciation for good work or offer feedback on improvements? In a story for Entrepreneur, Campbell notes that successful leaders “have mastery over the inner world of their emotions.”
“They are sharp about knowing when to use their emotions to push for power and attainment and when to pull back and use self-control to get what they want,” she explains. “Successful entrepreneurs do not let fear or anger take over and control their decision-making capabilities. Fear and anger make it difficult to reach mastery as these emotions disconnect people from rational thought. And rational thought keeps someone in touch with the whole battlefield, creating the space for good decision making and propelling the leader beyond petty emotions toward success. Self-control is a necessary ingredient for driving success.”
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Difficult moments are often part of the CEO experience, including acknowledging when major mistakes have been made, and taking appropriate steps to avoid those mistakes in the future. Accountability is a critical part of leadership, and it also helps executives develop self-awareness. Chris Myers, cofounder and CEO of BodeTree, wrote about this in a story for Forbes, relating it to the downfall of former pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli.
“More often than not, the perpetrators of aggressive or tone-deaf actions are motivated by subconscious drivers and fail to understand the damage they cause to their relationships and organizations,” he explains. “On the flip side, when individuals are self-aware enough to recognize their mistakes, people tend to be pretty forgiving. The first step towards self-awareness is to recognize and be open about the things that cause stress, anxiety, and negativity in your life. From there, it’s possible to accept that sometimes you’re just plain wrong. One of the most admirable and useful traits for entrepreneurs is the ability to admit your mistakes and move forward.”
Here’s a strategic benefit that can result from self-awareness. Risk comes with the territory for executives. Self-aware leaders may have an advantage in dealing with high-pressure scenarios. As Campbell explains in her Entrepreneur story, “Accomplished leaders understand that self-awareness brings a sense of certainty in tough decision-making situations.”
“This self-awareness enables them to make quicker and more efficient assessments in tough moments,” she says. “Their self-knowledge clears space so they can cut through the confusion, making their commitment to decisions more fluid. Successful leaders use observation and learning to become experts at knowing patterns of business and behavior, enabling them to take more risk with less loss.”
The self-awareness void
A lack of self-awareness can leave executives in the dark about their impact on the business and the people who make it run. An open mind is needed, as is acknowledging that there is always room for improvement in leadership skills. Writing for Forbes, psychiatrist Prudy Gourguechon presents the question of what happens without self-awareness. Among her answers:
- “You don’t know your blind spots.”
- “You don’t know when and how your emotions are distorting your thinking.”
- “You don’t know what you know and what you don’t know, so you can’t count on yourself to seek necessary additional information.”
- “You can’t judge the effectiveness of your communications.”
- “You can’t develop as a leader because you don’t know where you need to go.”
For executives looking to move forward in developing self-awareness, there are different ways to begin. Frances McIntosh includes several suggestions in a story for Forbes Coaches Council, which emphasizes not only self-awareness but also self-regulation, as in following through on areas where improvement is needed. Among her recommendations:
360 leadership assessments: “This tool highlights your leadership capabilities, including execution, communication, people management, and so on. This provides an objective view of your strengths and weakness, allowing you to focus on areas you need to develop or delegate to be more effective.”
Be open: “Part of your role as a leader is to build an effective team. Ask your team members, ‘How can I support you in your role?’ By being vulnerable enough to open yourself up to your team, you not only build trust, but demonstrate that you appreciate their opinions and insights.”
Be objective: “Look at a past situation, acknowledge what you did well, and note areas where you could have improved, whether that is in how you spoke to someone, what your body language was, or something else entirely. Then set up systems for making the change in the future.”
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