A study conducted at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations looked at the leadership styles, backgrounds, and track records of senior executives from a range of companies. The researchers found that a high self-awareness score was the single best predictor of overall success.

Another study by the Korn/Ferry Institute looked at the cost of low self-awareness, noting that poorly performing companies’ employees had 20% more blind spots (gaps in self-awareness) compared to those working at financially strong companies, and they were 79% more likely to have low overall self-awareness than those at financially strong companies.[i] (While these studies focus on for-profit companies, it’s easy to imagine how the concepts translate to nonprofit companies, where effective leadership might be even more important. In a mission-based organization, the cost of poor leadership might be families going hungry, foster kids without needed supports, or a failure to respond effectively during a natural disaster.)

Self-awareness is fascinating stuff. We’ve all had that mystifying experience of watching someone act atrociously, with no apparent awareness of the impact they’re having, or how they seem to be working against their own cause. Also likely, somewhat horrifying, and worth considering: we’ve also BEEN that bull in a china shop, careening around without realizing the damage we’re causing.

So what IS self-awareness, and how does it shape your effectiveness as a leader?

Know your strengths and weaknesses. There are several questions to consider:

  • Do you have a reasonably accurate understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, untainted by reckless confidence or false modesty?
  • What’s the balance between your focus on people (leveraging teams, mentoring individuals) and your focus on achieving results (being decisive, understanding systems)?
  • How do your strengths and weaknesses fit within your team? If you’re highly results-oriented, who will help mentor and develop the people on your team? If you have a gift for rallying people around a shared vision but you’re less skilled at follow-through, who will help the team maintain momentum and achieve results?

Understand how you react under pressure. Are you aware of how you react when you’re feeling stressed or challenged? Are you able to draw on your strengths, or do your fight/flight/freeze impulses get in your own darn way? This is a particularly tricky facet of self-awareness: We all learned patterns of behavior when we were tiny people in a big and confusing world, behaviors that helped us feel safe or show our worth. These reactive patterns can be so woven into our identity and sense of reality that we don’t perceive them. (We don’t call them blind spots for nothing. Like many things in human nature, it’s much easier to see the patterns in someone else.) In broad strokes, there are three patterns that we tend to fall into. See which ones ring a bell:

  • Complying: which can look like people-pleasing, being excessively cautious, or prioritizing harmony over the hard truths.
  • Protecting: where people might become distant, aloof, or cynical, or position themselves as superior.
  • Controlling: which can look like micro-managing, aggression, or pursuing results at the expense of people.

Uncover your guiding beliefs. We tend to accept our beliefs as truths. What are the beliefs that shape your understanding of the world? Do those beliefs serve you? Do they help you have the impact that you want? Like reactive patterns, our beliefs can be so ingrained that they’re hard to identify. Here’s one approach: Look at the metaphors and figures of speech that you use. Is it a “dog eat dog world” or do you think that “a rising tide lifts all boats”? Are you worried about “getting too big for your britches” or were you raised to “look out for Number One”?

Identify and learn to manage your inner critics. A close cousin to your beliefs, inner critics are those parts of your inner narrative that often show up as doubters, naysayers, and judges. Different from thoughtful analysis or considering the risks, the inner critics typically bring a demeaning tone that interferes with your performance and effectiveness.

Develop emotional intelligence. What happens when you get triggered? What are your “go-to” emotions, and what practices help you manage your responses?

Articulate your core values. What are the principles or ideals that guide you, especially when the going gets rough?

Integrate your whole self. In spite of persistent cultural messages to the contrary, you are more than your big, old, intellectual brain. You are walking around in a gloriously complex body, which carries your brain along with your emotions and your spiritual self (whatever that means to you.) Where do you hold tension in your body? How do you connect with what you’re feeling? And when was the last time you took a calming breath?

Paths to deeper self-awareness

OK. If you’re interested in developing deeper self-awareness, what are the options? The irony of self-awareness is that it relies on deep self-inquiry, AND it can’t really happen—not completely, anyway—in a vacuum. Self-awareness is greatly amplified by working within a group, whether it’s an existing team or a cross-section of peers, or both. On your own, you’ll draw on your own senses and experiences. Within a group, you’ll benefit from other people’s experiences and views. And you’ll be able to calibrate your behaviors and your approach because you’ll be learning about how others perceive you, and how your intention compares with your actual impact.

Here are some things you can do on your own or with others.

On your own:

Self-guided study: There are lots of great books, blogs, and podcasts out there. (Some of my top recommendations are listed here.)

  • Self-assessment tools: Tools like StrengthsFinder 2.0 or MBTI-type inventories can be useful.
  • A two-part self-assessment practice:
    • If you’re working to develop a particular capacity, think about what success will look like. What are the behaviors you’re going to try? What’s the attitude you’re going to experiment with? For example, if you’ve realized that you need to be more decisive, you can practice saying things like, “I’ll make that decision within 24 hours. Please check back with me tomorrow.” or “Given the available information, the best decision we can make in this moment is X. What are the next steps?” 
    • Do a mini-review after completing a major project, facilitating a thorny meeting, or reaching a milestone, and ask yourself a few questions: What went well? What would you do differently next time? What was your intended impact, and what actually happened? What are the key lessons learned?
  • Grounding practices like meditation, reflection, journaling, or spending time in nature. These practices can slow your mind and create an opportunity for you to connect with and notice your thoughts, feelings, and the state of your body.

With others:

  • Seek feedback from colleagues, peers, direct reports, and mentors, to examine your intended impact compared to your actual impact.
  • Engage an executive or leadership coach who will provide a courageous space for reflection and feedback, and will challenge your thinking and champion your learning.
  • Create or find a peer learning group to share resources, ideas, and perspectives.
  • Enroll in a leadership development program.
  • Participate in a 360° leadership assessment to identify your blind spots (the gaps between how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you.) As one example, the Leadership Circle Profile is grounded in leadership effectiveness research and looks at your leadership capacities while also examining your reactive tendencies – basically, how you tend to get in your own way when you’re feeling stressed or challenged.

YOUR TURN: What’s your view on self-awareness? What do you know about yourself, and where are your blind spots? (And how do you go about finding them?!)

[i] Zes and Landis, 2013