Nutshell: Know then thyself: why and how to become a self-aware leader

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Future Talent Learning

06 Apr 2020

06 Apr 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Gaining understanding of our own personality and individuality – and how they impact on others – gives us the power to improve our performance, relationships, leadership and wellbeing.

Sometimes, when we’re looking to understand a concept or idea, it can help to think about its absence, what it’s not. Organisational psychologist and executive coach Tasha Eurich has made a career of research into self-awareness, what it means and how it manifests itself. So, we might take note when she handily offers up her guide to the least self-aware characters in fiction. The “comically delusional” Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, anyone? The original desperate (and phenomenally unaware) housewife, Emma Bovary? Or perhaps we might think of the “colossal vitality” of Jay Gatsby’s illusion in The Great Gatsby.

Sadly, it’s not just fictional characters who fail to make the grade when it comes to knowing ourselves and how we’re perceived by others. It may be relatively harmless as a character device in the pages of a book, but a lack of self-awareness in the real world can be a significant barrier to making the most of ourselves and forging relationships with others. At work, developing that self-awareness is important for all of us; for leaders, it’s crucial.

The difficulty is that self-awareness can seem like the most elusive of personal qualities. Ukrainian poet and activist Vironika Tugaleva is but one of a long line of thinkers, writers and psychologists to ponder and share with the world their views on what knowing ourselves really means. But Tugaleva’s wisdom that “To know yourself, you must sacrifice the illusion that you already do” is not a bad starting point as we embark on the journey towards self-knowledge that is so essential – and never-ending.

One of the reasons that self-awareness has fascinated so many thinkers for so long is that it is a notoriously difficult thing to understand. The ability to know ourselves, to understand our emotions, how they affect us - and others – can mean engaging with our inner beings at quite a fundamental and uncomfortable level. At work, when it’s hard to find the time to interrogate even the simplest of actions or events, knowing why and how we feel and act the way we do is, well, incredibly hard. We might feel that irritation when Dave from Accounts fiddles with his pen incessantly in meetings or be wounded to the core by what our boss thought was just a lighted-hearted joke about that presentation we just gave. But we don’t always understand why we feel annoyed, distressed or triggered much of the time.

We’re not alone. Arguably, the fundamental starting point of philosophy itself is the ancient aphorism inscribed on the opening to the Delphic Oracle in Greece: ‘know thyself’. But when that same Oracle declared, generations later, that the philosopher Socrates was the wisest man of all, his reaction to this particularly nice piece of feedback was confusion rather than self-congratulation. When he reflected on why the Oracle had bestowed this honour on him, he humbly concluded that it could only be that his true wisdom was in being aware of how little he actually knew. And, Vironika Tugaleva-like, he considered that to be especially true when it comes to our ability to really know ourselves.

By the 19th century, the burgeoning science of psychology was joining in with our perennial fascination with our ability (or otherwise) to know ourselves. According to Sigmund Freud, we are definitively “not masters in our own houses”; we might feel in control but, in reality, we’re largely driven by unconscious motives that often elude us. Freud considered this central facet of psychoanalysis to be so significant that he likened it to the discovery by the mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that it was the Sun, and not the Earth, at the centre of the universe. Just like the Earth, our egos would have to adjust to the new realities of a “Copernican revolution of the soul”, one in which we were far less consciously in charge of ourselves than we might think.

While some have argued that these unconscious drivers have their origins in evolutionary theory, Freud considered the task of self-awareness – and of psychoanalysis generally –  to be based in painstakingly identifying and moving those hidden unconscious motives into the light of consciousness so that we can gradually gain more insight into what’s driving us. And with that insight comes, to some degree, the ability to gain control of what we’re actually doing.

So, for Freud, understanding what motivates and drives us gives us the power to potentially change and develop, as well as understanding how we might affect those around us. It’s this idea that underpins much contemporary thinking about self-awareness, especially when it comes to forging those positive relationships with others that is the hallmark of effective leadership. It’s not surprising, then, that self-awareness has come to be seen as a key leadership virtue.

The power of seeing ourselves clearly

Psychologist and emotional intelligence (EQ) guru Daniel Goleman agrees. For Goleman, self-awareness is “the first component of emotional intelligence”, given prominence as the first of his four EQ domains and defined by him as how we understand our own emotions and their impact on others.

According to Goleman, self-awareness is about decoding how we’re feeling and why, consciously examining our motives, desires and character. It means sensing how others see us and how our self-image reflects that larger reality. It gives us realistic self-confidence because we’re aware of our strengths and weaknesses. It helps us to have clarity when it comes to our values and purpose, allowing us to be more decisive when we need to act. Leaders who are self-aware can recognise when their emotions have a negative impact on their work, or on the people around them – and are better equipped to change tack, look for opportunities for feedback, experiment with different ways to motivate people and be more open to creative solutions.

That’s not to say that Socrates was wrong. For Tasha Eurich, true self-awareness is as rare as it is valuable. Her book, Insight, reports on her large-scale scientific study to define what self-awareness really is and how we can increase it, deducing that while 95% of people believe they are self-aware, only 10-15% actually are. With those who met her criteria for self-awareness, there were no patterns by industry, age, gender or any other demographic characteristic.  

Through 10 separate investigations with nearly 5,000 participants, Eurich pinned down self-awareness as “the ability to see ourselves clearly; to understand who we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world”. It’s worth developing, she argues, because it “gives us power”, even if we don’t always like what we see.

“People who are self-aware are more fulfilled, have stronger relationships, are more creative, confident and better communicators,” she asserted in a TED Talk in 2017. “They are less likely to lie, cheat and steal, they perform better at work, are more promotable and they are more effective leaders with more profitable companies.”

A study by Korn Ferry Hay Group found that among leaders with multiple strengths in emotional self-awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance. Conversely, leaders low in emotional self-awareness created negative climates 78% of the time.

So, if self-awareness is so powerful – and yet so elusive – what can we do to understand it better and begin to develop it ourselves?

Internal and external self-awareness

A good starting point is to delve a little deeper into what it actually means to be self-aware as a leader. Tasha Eurich’s research identifies two types of self-awareness, both of which must be cultivated and balanced for effective leadership:

  • Internal self-awareness (how well we know ourselves) refers to how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviours, strengths and weaknesses) and impact on others. This is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress and depression.
  • External self-awareness (how well we understand how others see us) means understanding how other people view us, also in terms of all the factors above. People who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives.

Since there is almost no correlation between having internal self-awareness and external self-awareness, she has developed four leadership archetypes to provide a framework for improvement. They’re a useful guide that can be used alongside other diagnostics, like the Johari Window.

At the bottom of the awareness hierarchy are the Seekers, unsure of who they are or how others perceive them, and requiring improvement in both their internal and external awareness. These are followed by the inward-focused Introspectors (who have a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses but are not clear how others see them), and the outward-looking Pleasers (who understand how they are seen by others, but do not have an accurate sense of self). Sitting pretty at the top are the Aware, with their delicate balance of internal and external awareness.

When it comes to internal and external self-awareness, it’s tempting to value one over the other. But Eurich believes that leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and developing strategies to understand how others see them: “Self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a delicate balance of two distinct, even competing, viewpoints.”

How to develop self-awareness: five questions

No matter which archetype we match, the good news is that Eurich – like Goleman – believes there is plenty of scope to improve our own self-awareness, both internal and external. But it takes practice, and we need to tackle it the right way. It is, indeed, a journey.

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) suggests that, as a starting point, we leaders might ask ourselves five key questions.

1. How well do we know our own emotions?

As we’ve seen, the ability to recognise and understand our own emotions – especially when under pressure – is at the heart of self-awareness. Self-aware leaders seek to identify what factors influence their own behaviour and others’ behaviour towards them as a precursor to the next essential stage of managing them effectively.

Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence developed the mnemonic RULER as a guide to help us better understand and decode how we’re feeling. Originally developed for use in schools, it’s a useful reminder for all of us when we’re finding it hard to understand not just what we’re feeling, but why. He invites us to actively interrogate and label those emotions (even writing them down) so that we’ll be in a much better place to express, deploy or regulate them more effectively. If we have to have a difficult conversation with a team member, for example, processing our emotions around it in advance can help to take the sting out a situation that might be difficult to manage or control.

2. How often do we reflect on our performance?

Tasha Eurich has strong opinions about how reflection can best be used to help us develop our self-awareness; “Thinking about ourselves is not the same as knowing ourselves,” she cautions. In some ways, she’s right: reflection that threatens to tip over into unhelpful rumination, where we replay negative thoughts and feelings endlessly, is never helpful. But there’s plenty of evidence that taking the time out to reflect on our performance and look to gain some insight as a result – whether through techniques such as reflective journaling or in conversation with a trusted friend or colleague – can be a powerful aid to knowing ourselves.

Eurich suggests that, when we reflect, we need to replace too many ‘why?’ questions (which “trap us in the rear-view mirror”) with ‘what?’ questions, (which “move us forward to the future”). Focusing on the ‘what’ also helps us to stay objective, to learn from our experiences and to act on our insights. For example, rather than wondering “why do I clash with my new manager” (and concluding that you are simply polar opposites and destined to disagree) asking ourselves a question like “what can I do to show my manager that I’m the best person for this job” will lead to more productive thinking and practical strategies.

Asking why might be necessary when we want to delve more deeply and really get to the crux of something, but, often, a simple what question will give us what we need to take note and adjust if necessary.

3. Are we aware of our weaknesses?

A whole literature has grown up around the issue of whether we should look to play to our strengths or address our weaknesses, but the fact remains that it’s healthy to be aware of those areas which simply don’t match what we might be good at, or enjoy.

We all have various flaws and personality traits that can hold us back. Perhaps we tend to focus on our own personal drive to achieve excellent results – but fail to take our teams with us. We may prefer a more relaxed approach to management, but that won’t always help us to meet those deadlines and get things done. Sova’s team roles assessment shows us, too, that there is light and shade in everything. A weakness in one context (for example, lack of flexibility) might be a strength in another (for example, in a crisis, when we simply need to act fast). Developing self-awareness around our strengths and weaknesses helps us to manage and deploy our preferences and traits to best effect.

Being transparent about weaknesses can make us feel vulnerable, but it also helps to build trust in our teams. Belbin Team Roles analysis uses the term “allowable weaknesses” and reminds us that, in teams, our own weaknesses might open the door for others to provide the necessary compensating strength.

4. How do we respond to criticism of our leadership abilities?

It’s a fact that as we progress in our careers and assume leadership responsibilities, it’s much less likely that our co-workers will take the potentially career-limiting move of offering us some candid feedback. The power dynamics are simply against us. But to keep us honest, we need that intelligence more than ever, and to find ways to solicit what might not otherwise be freely given.

Eurich also believes that being more experienced can give us a false sense of confidence about both our performance and our levels of self-knowledge. Similarly, the more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities, and the less likely they’ll be to challenge assumptions about themselves or listen to feedback.

In the service of self-awareness, we need to guard against this. Eurich exhorts us to seek out “loving critics” to provide honest, constructive feedback, “gut-checking” any difficult or surprising findings with others. Kim Scott’s concept of radical candor reinforces this idea that we need to seek out people who will hold up mirrors to us – but who also have our best interests at heart. But that doesn’t mean that we can duck the difficult stuff; we also need to work at learning to receive feedback that’s candid, to see it as another useful data point in our quest for self-knowledge rather than a judgement on, or rejection of, everything we stand for. Scott suggests that we should each develop a simple sentence we can regularly put to trusted colleagues to proactively seek out this feedback, for example: "what one thing could I start or stop doing this week to make working with me easier?".

5. How well do we show empathy to our teammates?

It might seem counter-intuitive to think about empathy, a fundamental tool for forging relationships with others, as a self-awareness tool. But when we are open-minded, curious and willing to walk in other people’s shoes, that empathy is another way for us to learn about ourselves and how we are perceived by others. For example, focusing on others rather than just ourselves can be an important tool for effective, non-ruminative reflection.

Understanding a range of other perspectives and preferences, respecting difference and listening without judgement will also help us refine what we think about ourselves. And we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, no matter what our job titles suggest. For Goleman, one of the hallmarks of self-awareness in a leader is a self-deprecating sense of humour, in large part because it demonstrates how well we understand how others truly perceive us.

Which brings us back to Socrates, and his thinking that “an unexamined life is not worth living”. Self-awareness is a fundamental building block of effective leadership. Understanding what it means, and how we can work towards it are the precursors to being able to reconceive and reinvent ourselves as leaders: to continue to learn, develop and grow, we need to discover ourselves first. And, to do that, we might be mindful of the immortal words of two great poets: from Alexander Pope, we need to heed his call to “Know then thyself”, while at the same time striving for Robert Burns’ “giftie”, “To see oursels as others see us”. Tasha Eurich would, I’m sure, approve of such literary self-awareness.

How self-aware are you?

Take the Tasha Eurich quiz to find out.

Test your understanding

  1. Describe Tasha Eurich’s two types of self-awareness.
  2. Review Eurich’s four self-awareness archetypes and how they relate to her two types of self-awareness.
  3. Outline the stages of Mark Brackett’s RULER mnemonic and how they might be used to help us recognise and manage our emotions.