Self-awareness is the most important singular quality for a great leader to have. A leader with a firm grip on her circle of competence is naturally willing to empower others around her, and has an acute sense of when there is a discrepancy between the message she intends to send and the message her teams actually receive.
In some sense, most of the leadership questions I’ve asked in this series come back to self-awareness. I don’t believe leaders try to look infallible, fail to create safe spaces for feedback, stifle their teams’ growth or signal behaviors that contradict stated values on purpose. I believe most leaders are well-intentioned, just oblivious to reality.
That’s why I decided to make this series a list of questions; to pull off the body armor and encourage reflection. I think that in a casual conversation, most leaders I’ve been around would agree with the majority of the principles I’ve covered here. But when they stop to ask these questions and reflect, they might realize that their team members don’t really ever disagree with them or give them critical feedback. That means they have work to do.
An organizational commitment to self-awareness, from hiring new graduates through the CEO, would work wonders for the cultural issues that plague most organizations. And quite frankly, it wouldn’t be all that hard to implement. Here’s a few ideas I’ve kicked around that I’ll try to apply to my next company:
- Self-Awareness Profiles
It would be fascinating for every person in the organization to be required to state, on a public profile, three reasons why someone would love working with you and three reasons why someone would struggle working with you. I’d make this part of screening for new hires as well. Besides instilling a natural cultural value of humility in the organization (with even the most senior leaders acknowledging improvement areas publicly), the process would force everyone to self-reflect and be vulnerable about the things that matter in trying to achieve anything as a group. This would help in assembling complimentary project teams, and you’d very easily be able to identify self-interested people (who might list fake weaknesses like “caring too much” or being “a perfectionist”).
- Self-Awareness Evaluation
Include a self-awareness exercise as part of any evaluation process, where people are rewarded not just for having the highest scores in particular areas, but having the most accurate self-assessments. You’d collect a good amount of feedback on people from across the organization, and if someone’s self-evaluation closely matched the wider feedback received, they’d be rewarded for that (even if the thing being evaluated is an area in which they struggle). This would admittedly be a bit tricky to implement (it’s a rough idea at the moment that would require a more thoughtful dive in to work out the details, but it would also help reinforce a culture of humility, self-awareness and continuous improvement.
Being self-aware ultimately comes down to an individual’s willingness to want to understand themselves better, but so much of our value chain is built on running from it. The entire luxury category, from Louis Vuitton to Rolex to Ferrari, is built on status signaling: very few customers actually care about the LV manufacturing process, use their watch to read the time or will ever drive their SF90 Spider anywhere near the speed it’s designed to go. They just want love and respect, and these luxury brands are a way of signaling that they are deserving of it.
There’s nothing wrong with luxury brands, but we’d all be a little better off for knowing ourselves well enough to understand why we really do the things we do. The more we know ourselves, the better we’ll understand the world around us. And in turn, the more effective, inspiring, authentic leader we can become.