Self-awareness has been cited as the most important skill for leaders going into the 2020’s and beyond. It is the ability to stand apart from ourselves and to examine our thought processes. It is the ability to examine our motives and to really look objectively at our life story and how that influences the scripts that we operate from. To understand the triggers that drive our actions and influence our habits and tendencies. It’s also the ability to understand how this impacts those around us.

    Our thoughts, beliefs and perceptions create the world around us. The science of psychology tells us that our core fundamental beliefs are developed before we reach the age of five. Without a great deal of conscious work, they will change little throughout our lives. Most of what we learn and experience from this point on is coloured by the beliefs held in our subconscious.

    As you are reading this right now, you are more than likely thinking that this is one area that you have sorted as a leader and the chances are that like me, you are dead wrong.

    Research shows that when being assessed, 95% of leaders believe they have a high degree of self-awareness, but that in reality, only between 10 and 15% of people have these competencies. Psychologists have noted that those claiming to know themselves most are often the least self-aware.

    The other alarming thing with regards leadership is that the more experienced we are, the greater our perceived expertise and the greater our position of power, the more likely it is that this will hinder our self-awareness. Stay with me on this one, it’s important.

    Our expertise does not help us root out false information. In fact, the greater the level of perceived expertise in our minds, the more we overclaim our knowledge. When we see ourselves as having great expertise and experience this can prevent us from doing our homework. It prevents us from seeking disconcerting evidence and from questioning our assumptions. In this way, we over-inflate our sense of importance and prevent ourselves from learning anything that may question our current reality. We read only the things that will back up and confirm our current reality.

    Similarly, the more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities. One study of more than 3 600 leaders across a variety of roles and industries found that, relative to lower-level leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly overvalued their skills (when compared to others’ perceptions). This pattern was the same for 19 out of the 20 competencies the researchers measured, including emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, empathy, trustworthiness and leadership performance.

    Researchers have put forward a few explanations for this phenomenon. The first is that because of their level in the organisation, senior leaders have fewer people that can provide them with candid and honest feedback. The second is that the more power a person wields, the less comfortable people are going to be giving them constructive feedback because they think it’s going to hurt their careers. Business professor James O’Toole adds that as one’s power grows, the less willing we are to listen, either because we think we know more or because feedback comes at a cost.

    Why is self-awareness so important?

    A study by the Cornell School of Industrial and Labour relations found self-awareness to be the strongest predictor of overall success for leaders. If we are aware of our own weaknesses, it enables us to work with others who have different strengths to us and we are more likely to accept the idea that someone else may have better ideas or abilities than our own. A lack of self-awareness can alienate others when we misunderstand the impact of our actions on them.

    Research also shows that when we see ourselves more clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make better decisions, we build better relationships and communicate more effectively. We are also less likely to lie, cheat and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. We are also more effective leaders with more satisfied employees and more profitable companies.

    Tools to increase self-awareness

    • Understand your life story

    Over the past 10 years, psychologists have focussed on a new field of research called “Narrative identity”. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives don’t just shape our personalities, they are our personalities. How we understand and interpret our narrative frames our current actions and also our future goals. When we confront the impact of our life’s challenges it increases our self-awareness. What people, experiences and events have had the greatest impact in shaping the person you have become? In which experiences have you found the greatest passion for leading? How do you frame your challenges and setbacks in life?

    • Create a daily habit of self-reflection

    Develop a daily practice of setting aside at least 20 minutes to reflect on your life. Focus on what the important things in your life are and not just the immediate. There is a direct correlation between mindfulness and changes in the brain -away from anger and anxiety and toward a sense of calm and well-being.

    • Seek honest feedback

    Part of self-awareness is external self-awareness. The ability to see clearly how others see us. We all have traits that others see, but that we are unable to see in ourselves. These “blind spots” can be addressed by receiving honest feedback from people who we can trust. Receiving feedback is difficult so focus on the psychological triggers that may block your learning. Sheila Heen in her book “Thanks for the feedback” suggests that three main triggers prevent our learning: Relationship triggers, identity triggers, and truth triggers. If we are feeling defensive, we should ask ourselves what the potential cause may be. Often, we can explain it using these triggers.

    Self-awareness is a life-long journey of personal discovery and not something we learn overnight. If you want your team to start becoming more self-aware, you may want to look at our new program – Adaptive Leadership – Leading in times of disruptive change. You also may want to consider one on executive coaching.

    Best of luck on your leadership journey.

    Eddie Botes