Know Yourself – Self-Awareness for Strong Leadership

Colin Roy

Who are you?  Really!

What makes you tick, what gets you going? What are you good at?  What are you bad at?  Self-aware leaders continually ask themselves these questions.  They are curious, they seek out information and welcome the answers.

Taking the time to be self-aware, to really consider one’s strengths and weaknesses, to build self-understanding, is not something that most leaders do very often.  They are too busy focusing on the multiple tasks of any given day and on things considered far more urgent.  Developing and practicing self-awareness may not get the attention that it warrants, yet it is one of the most important things leaders can do to raise their own and their organization’s performance.

Strong leaders must know and understand themselves.  The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow asserts clearly:

“Whereas the average individuals often have not the slightest idea of what they are, of what they want, of what their own opinions are, self-actualizing individuals have superior awareness of their own impulses, desires, opinions, and subjective reactions in general.”

 

Like many things, over time we can get better at self-awareness.  Growing awareness allows us to more clearly and vitally focus on building our strengths while intentionally mitigating and managing our weaknesses.

Strength in Vulnerability

The process of naming one’s own weaknesses is also an act of identifying strengths.  People respect a leader who recognizes that he or she is not perfect.  They respect the honesty and courage it takes to admit weakness, particularly because so many leaders do not have the strength of character required for honest self-assessment – and even rarer is the leader who articulates these weaknesses.

By showing vulnerability, leaders establish trust and show they are approachable and human.  The act of showing vulnerability works to build solidarity between leaders and staff, and being honest about our weaknesses helps us understand what we need most from those who work with us.

When leaders act as though they are perfect at everything, they risk alienating their staff.  This lack of self-awareness can be extremely costly to a leader.  Nothing undermines the effectiveness of a leader faster than failing to admit mistakes and show you have weaknesses. Emphasizing one’s own perfection has the potential effect of showing staff that they are not needed, that the leader can take care of everything.  Leaders are human: we are not perfect, we say and do things that we shouldn’t. When we fail to admit this, others won’t respect us or follow us as leaders.

Focus on Both Strengths and Weaknesses

While the ability and desire to recognize one’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial, what we do with the knowledge is perhaps more critical.  In recent years various authors and researchers have strongly pushed us to focus on improving strengths, while not worrying much about weaknesses.

The key premise of this belief is that each person’s greatest potential for growth is in the areas of their greatest strengths.  Thus, if one is focusing too much energy on their weaknesses, they are taking time away from working on their strengths.  Most people would agree that fixing weakness is harder than building on strengths one already has.

While I believe the emphasis on strengths-based leadership has merits, focusing only on strengths has its limitations when our weaknesses are related to how we relate to others.  Relational weaknesses have the potential to be so detrimental and fatal to the leader that simply managing around them will not suffice. Sometimes it is imperative to work on and improve areas of weakness. I firmly believe that with the right motivation, weaknesses can and should be improved.

Working on and Managing Weaknesses

Once relational weaknesses are identified, the next step is to reflect on the impact they may have on people you work with.  Strong leaders care about the people they work with and do not want to intentionally hurt their feelings or emotionally harm them. If one’s relational weaknesses create a negative impact for self and others, that should provide motivation to work at mitigating them.

Notice I didn’t say fix or remove the weakness.  In reality, often the best we can hope for is to mitigate the impact of these weaknesses.  The difficulty of fixing relational weaknesses is that they are primary a result of personality.  Personalities are a very difficult thing to change, and many would say even impossible to change.

Strengths and the Confident Leader

It’s difficult to be a strong leader without having strengths and a high level confidence.

In my youth, and perhaps even still, some people perceive me as arrogant.  To this I would often reply in the following way, “I’m not arrogant, I’m just confident and you are jealous.”

This of course seems like an arrogant statement (particularly the “you are jealous” part), and this response usually did little to dispel the perception that I was anything but arrogant. I have since softened the side of me that was easily perceived as arrogant.  While arrogance is a negative trait, we do need confidence as leaders.

Leaders need to show a certain level of self-assurance.  Employees do not want to follow an insecure leader.  People follow leaders who are sure of themselves, it gives them direction and assurance they are moving in the right direction with the needed support to be successful.  Confidence is a strength, but risks becoming a weakness if it blinds a leader to the realities of what may be their shortcomings.

While leaders need to be confident, they also need to be able to see situations clearly and accurately. Extreme confidence bordering on arrogance is a slippery slope.  It may lead to a lack of listening or an over reliance on self, when others are best positioned to help.  It becomes difficult to identify and work on weaknesses if one has an overabundance of confidence.