It leads to sustainable effectiveness . . .
Today's tumultuous conditions require leaders to master speed, turbulence, and complexity, upgrading from traditional leadership competencies to new and more flexible strategies for leading organizations. Building greater self-awareness must be a high priority.
Self-awareness is not a common theme in leadership literature, and the practices that lead to it aren’t easy to find on the bestseller lists. After all, confronting blind spots, reassessing outdated standards, becoming aware of and learning to manage negative self-talk, and catching tendencies to undermine the self or others are not included in leadership classes.
Instead, most leaders survive by reactively evolving coping mechanisms to deal with accelerating speed and complexity. Over time, those reactive strategies take a toll on the leader and organization, as the results can’t be sustained. With some focus on self-awareness, though, this cycle can be broken.
Leaders who make it a practice to gain insight into their own thinking and actions tend to detect and correct self-interference with their own effectiveness, which benefits those they lead, and their organization. Thus, dust tends not to collect for too long on a dysfunctional notion or situation before direct corrective action is taken by the self-aware leader. That results in the continuous learning needed to evolve greater consciousness.
Here are six qualities of self-aware leadership: 1) becoming aware of (and editing) the beliefs that drive behaviors, actions, and results as leaders; 2) remaining curious and open-minded: asking, listening, getting help, learning, and intentionally changing; 3) being imaginative and valuing imagination in others; 4) being responsible for the impact on others, the organization, community, and society; 5) leading with great authenticity of heart and mind; and 6) being humble by monitoring and addressing the periodic pitfalls of egoic behavior.
Most leaders fall into the category of achiever-leaders—they rise to leadership based not on their evolving consciousness, but on their ability to get things done and deliver the goods, or, in the political domain, to impress voters more than the other candidates. Such achievers tend to be more reactive than creative and to use some combination of people-pleasing, self-protection, or control to get results. This “operating system” works for a time before it causes problems, then stops working altogether.
At some point, certain leaders realize that they need new strategies to succeed. Perhaps they are ambitious to learn and grow, they’ve had the pain of failure with a business or initiative, or see a high wall ahead and wonder: What now? Such pain or obstacle with their current operating system is the typical catalyst for waking up. Leaders who arrive at that point without significant professional stress are exceptional, which makes one wonder if pain is truly the best motivator of change.
Being doers rather than reflectors by nature, achievers don’t tend to focus on self-awareness. They self-describe as being slammed. They exist in a self-perpetuating action-result loop of day-to-day work. Others are riding the rapids of short-term deliverables or results. For these men and women, quiet self-reflection, deeper development of their “operating systems” as leaders as Bob Anderson, inventor of the Leadership Circle Profile puts it, is definitely not job one.
If leaders need greater self-awareness to be highly effective, whose job is that? After all, a leader’s consciousness can’t be put on a balance sheet (and new strategies that go beyond skills into areas of belief, feelings, and behaviors can require a more costly investment up front). The “optics” of these costs and their custom nature give the CFO a headache. Is it the role of the organization to develop its leaders, or is it the role of the individual?
I posed this question to Mark R. Sobol, a consultant who works with executives of technology and engineering firms. He says: “It’s part of the organization’s role; it has a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders. Just because human assets aren’t booked on a financial statement doesn’t mean they’re not the most important assets. It’s the duty of every organization to be good stewards-good developers of their assets.”
You need to direct leadership development activities toward the intersection of the needs and outcomes important to the leader and the institution. Try to quantify the ROI. Traditional training budgets for leaders (expressed as a standard cost per employee) end up being penny wise and pound-foolish. If, through directed development activities and one-on-one efforts, a leader becomes 10 percent more effective, that can be multiplied not only by their own salary, but also by the returns on the organization. Attitudes about budgeting and accounting for leadership development need to evolve.
There are many reasons why leaders don’t emphasize self-awareness as part of a development plan. Such reasons, in the face of increasing speed, turbulence, and complexity, are less relevant. Developing a new awareness to go beyond coping to thriving is both a responsibility and a gift. Leaders have a responsibility to others and their communities and society to take ownership of the wake they leave behind them, to learn, and to make changes. Greater organizations, communities, and societies are the gifts that flow when leaders have the courage, to, as the Greek put it, “Know thyself.”