Exploring Self-Awareness – Self-Reflection is a Critical Skill


Successful strategic leaders have a high sense of self-awareness – they are aware of their internal state and how their thoughts are framed by their experiences and biases. It is also important that they are also aware of others thoughts, feelings and biases and how these drive their decisions and actions. It should be noted some people find self-awareness to be easier than others and this can be influenced by internal state of mind as well as outside factors. Most of us are aware of extreme emotions or feelings that we are experiencing, e.g., we will find ourselves being angry or sad in a particular situation. I would argue that there is a case to be made for some people being more sensitive to their internal state of mind whilst others may be less sensitive to subtle feelings that may be triggers in any given situation. Being attuned to your feelings comes with practice and is a learned skill. A critical skill for a strategic leader is to develop their ability to become more self-aware through self-reflection. Self-reflection is time put aside to think about situations that demonstrate your strengths and opportunities to grow.

Why is it important for you, as a strategic leader, to have a high degree of self-awareness? There are many reasons but I will focus on three that I have seen to be the most important: identifying gaps, maintaining focus and self-confidence.

Identifying Your Leadership Gaps

A high degree of self-awareness helps to identify the gaps in strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for growth. Understanding what is required to lead in the future should be focused on what is needed to deliver on your strategic goals. A high degree of self-awareness is needed to identify what gaps there are between your “real” self and the “ideal” self that you need to be as a leader. As you develop and grow as a leader and as the external environment changes you need to build the skills through self-reflection to monitor where you are at any given time.

Maintaining Focus

The second reason that is important to have a high degree of self- awareness relates to focus. There are some external factors that can influence your internal state of mind and your ability to be self-aware. The most obvious example is when you are under stress. Being self-aware of your level of stress is not always as easy as it may seem. We know when we are overworked and feeling overwhelmed by that looming deadline or sudden influx of requests that are all urgent. Monitoring yourself for chronic stress is more difficult and it is easy to get used to being under chronic stress (e.g., the boiling frog). If we are put into a high stress situation we will immediately be aware of the stress. If the stress levels increase slowly overtime, we may not be aware of the stress we are under until we start to see the negative impacts of chronic stress, such as health issues and inability to make good decisions. The important point here is that a critical part of being self-aware is to monitor your levels of stress and identify how that is impacting your behavior. In other words, it is easy to lose focus if you are not maintaining a high level of self-awareness and your stress levels.

Self-Confidence

The third reason for being self-aware relates to being self-confident. To be successful as the leader you need to be confident in your ability, know your strengths and be committed to a course of action. There will be many times when you will be tested as a leader, particularly if other people disagree with your ideas and actions. When you know something is the right thing to do you need to have the self-confidence to stand up for what you believe. Being aware of your strengths will give you the confidence to trust your intuition. Not all decisions and actions you will take will be supported by a complete set of data to fully understand a particular situation. There will be times when it is appropriate to take a course of action that may have risks attached e.g. if as a leader you are challenging the status quo or introducing a new product or idea, you may feel uncomfortable with the uncertainty in a situation. Having self confidence and trust in your intuition may be required to stay the course as you meet opposing views or resistance to your ideas. When considering self-confidence, it is equally important to being aware of your strengths is being aware your weaknesses. Being aware of what you are not good at gives you a good understanding of your limitations. Of course, you can build your strength and develop your weaknesses to overcome limitations but you risk losing self-confidence if you overstep your areas of expertise and fail.

The Impact of Being Self-Aware.

In my experience, a quality that is shown by great strategic leaders is that they are able to clearly demonstrate their strengths but also open themselves up to be vulnerable by recognizing their weaknesses. By being slightly vulnerable, leaders appear more human and this has two big advantages in addition to being authentic and more trustworthy. First, they are more approachable and appear to be more open to feedback. We often hear leaders say they have an “open door” policy to their employees but in reality, they may not be approachable and employees may avoid interactions with them. The danger of not being approachable is that a leader may not be fully aware of developing issues in their organization. The second impact of leaders who show vulnerability, is that it gives permission for employees to also display weaknesses. If the leader appears to be perfect and have no weaknesses, then it is difficult for employees not to mirror that behavior. There is a big advantage for employees to feel able to display their weaknesses as it is the first step to learning and developing those weaknesses into strengths. To show your vulnerable side takes a high degree of self-awareness and encourages self-awareness in your employees.

One of the major impacts of being self-aware is to be able to trust your intuition. This trust comes from being aware of your emotions and feelings that may be biased based on your state of mind. An appreciation of shifts in your mindset is important piece of self-awareness. A good example of the negative impact of your state of mind could be seen if you consider the residual emotions you may carry into an interaction. For example, you may be in a meeting that is highly emotional and you are discussing issues such as restructuring which you feel concerned and stressed about. If you did leave that meeting and move onto your next meeting, you may carry some of that residual emotion into your next meeting. We have all been in the situation where a leader rushes into a meeting late and, for reasons unrelated to the topic at hand and appears to be overly emotional. They are probably bringing the residual emotions form their last meeting. A best practice I have used to overcome this effect, is to build in to my schedule 10 minutes between meetings where I can re-center myself emotionally before going to next meeting. One of the advantages of being aware of your feelings and emotions is that you could monitor this residual effect.

Another aspect of being self-aware is how you are projecting your feelings and emotions to other people. You can be aware of this by monitoring the reaction of that person to you. One method that I have useful in my coaching business is to take it take advantage of video conferences as well as face-to-face meetings. The advantage of video conferencing is that, as well as seeing the other people in the conference, you also get the opportunity to look at your own image. This means that you can monitor yourself and you can get an understanding of how you are projecting your emotions and feelings. This obviously is in combination with knowing how you are feeling at particular time you are monitoring yourself on video.

Being aware of how you are difference from others is another aspect of self-awareness that deserves your time to reflect upon. It is important to know who you are and, equally, to know where you came from. In my coaching practice, I spent time with my coachees discussing their career, background, experiences and what influenced the way they frame the world. We also discuss some of the key decisions they have made during their career, how and why they made them. By discovering this unique experience, skills, background and way of thinking help shape an understanding of their strengths and biases. This aspect of self-awareness has an impact on knowing the strengths you bring to the table but also understanding of how you make decisions and take action.

If you are enjoying this post I would be grateful if you would help to spread it by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter, Facebook or Linked-in. Also check out my other blogs on my website www.apexstp.com or contact me at charles.dormer@apexstp.com.

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