Issue 2.5 | December 2010

In this Article: why effective leaders are self-aware but not self-centred.

by Jonathan Wilson

The most effective leaders spend a lot of time in front of the mirror.  Given that leaders do not exist for themselves, but for others, this might seem like a contradiction.  But of all the subjects we can study in order to become more effective leaders, one of the most important subjects is oneself.  As with democracy, leadership is an utterly human affair: it is by a person, for persons.  The more deeply a leader understands the nature and dynamics of both individuals and human systems, the more effectively they are able to lead.  This is not a neutral principle.  It can be badly abused, and often is.  A leader who observes and reflects carefully can also manipulate others in very sophisticated ways.  The saving grace, however, is that manipulative leadership is utterly self-centred: whereas the kind of awareness that is required to lead well is actually hindered by a self-centred perspective.  I speak of self-awareness.

This paradox finds its explanation in the fact that an effective leader’s self-awareness is exercised in the context of, and with a focus on, others.  The person possessing self-awareness of this kind has grasped, keenly, her personal strengths and how they best enable or assist others.  She has comprehended her personal limitations and how they can harm or hinder others, and how to therefore guard or manage them.  When she studies those who lead her she considers what response their approach triggers in her, so that she can manage her own leadership more effectively.  This kind of leader is not self-centred, even while keenly self-aware.  She reflects on herself in order to lead others well.

To develop self-awareness we need to self-evaluate, receive the evaluation of others, and accept the findings without skewing them in favour of ourselves.  This requires a humility that a self-centred person will struggle to possess.

The self-centred leader is aware of others in the context of, and with the focus on, herself.  She can also be very observant and reflective, but because she is self-centred, the focus of her observation is others, not herself.  Any reflection such a leader undertakes is shaped by self-interest: how others can best be managed to serve her own ends.  She cannot receive critical feedback without denying it or massaging it.  At worst, she will take the cynical path of false humility, which has no goal but to create a perception of personal quality rather than create the genuine condition of personal quality.

Mirrors for Leaders

Most of us stand between these two poles.  We have good intentions as leaders but are often caught out by our own self-interest.  Again, and surprisingly, the path to the humility so central to great leadership includes the intentional development of self-awareness.

There are three very practical tools we can use to increase our self-awareness.  We can use personality profiling instruments (e.g. Strengths Finder, Myers-Briggs, and DiSC) to better understand how our personality interacts with other personality types, and how other types perceive our type in action.  I have seen these create many a light-bulb moment for the person being assessed.  Other instruments focus specifically on leadership characteristics.  One that I favour is TAIS.

The second tool is to seek out feedback.  The best kind of feedback uses a constructive and objective framework through which people filter their input to you.  One approach is to take a personality assessment within the context of your team and allow your colleagues to interact with you over the results, which will allow you to gain a much richer understanding of yourself than if you did so on your own.  A process like this requires clear guidelines that encourage both respect and honesty.  Often a facilitator is a good resource to enable the kind of safety that makes such a process work well.

The third tool is to tell your story: to yourself and to others.  Take time on your own to reflect back over your life history and chart out highs and lows, prouds and sorries, etc.  Identify patterns and themes that reflect your strengths and passions as well as your limitations.  By telling your story to others, you gain, through their interaction with your story, an additional rich layer of insight.  I have facilitated the telling of personal histories between political enemies and between corporate executives.  The net result is always an increase in their appreciation of, and respect for, one another.  They discover their common humanity.

In my first management role I had a strained relationship with several individuals on our management team.  I had my explanations for this, but it was not my perceptions that mattered.  Following the wise advice of my (70 year old) mentor, I sought feedback from each.  While I learnt a few things, some about them and some about me, just the act of asking for input generated a virtually instantaneous change in the relationships.  To this day, every one of those managers remains a friend.

Increasing self-understanding can be very enlightening and encouraging.  But self-awareness is another step altogether, and it takes its shape in the context of others: how they best respond to your leadership, and where you are likely to hinder them or let them down.  As you increase your self-awareness, you will not only find others become more responsive to, and enabled by, your leadership: you will find yourself liberated, able to invest in your strengths and happy to let others get busy in those areas where you are less effective.

Another soul insight from

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