Leading from Within: The Role of Self-Awareness in Leadership

Leading from Within: The Role of Self-Awareness in Leadership

When it comes to leadership, there are a lot of challenges and external forces that you may have to deal with that can affect your leadership — compensation, performance reviews, disciplinary actions, just to name a few. However,  there are also internal forces that can affect your leadership, and often times, these are the forces that can go unnoticed. One such example is self-awareness.

Self-awareness is the gateway to personal mastery. If a leader isn’t self-aware, problems are sure to ripple through the team, rendering it ineffective. Here’s an example:

Long ago, I worked for a manager who was prone to major mood swings. Every member of our team knew when our manager arrived in a bad mood, so we kept our heads down and did our work. No one would approach her with a question, nor did we interact much with one another. Needless to say, our overall team performance suffered, as we held onto work when we needed answers from our manager; and our culture was frayed, worn down by a few good days followed by several tense ones.

We’d wait, maybe a few days, until our manager came in with a smile and a cheery, “Good morning!” That was the signal to bring any and all problems to her. The interesting thing is she never recognized this about herself. I mentioned it to her one day when I was frustrated. She looked at me oddly, as if I was making it up. Unfortunately, she didn’t seek feedback from others and continued to behave in an unproductive manner, damaging the performance of our team and consequently, generating constant turnover.

On the other hand, sometimes a leader can recognize their emotions are negatively impacting those around them, but they don’t make the necessary adjustments to fix their behavior. Even if we are self-aware, we still need to exercise self-control. Self-awareness does us no good if we don’t make the changes that are needed to adjust the issues that we become aware of.

One time, I worked for another manager who, after a tirade would say, “That’s just how I am. I don’t mean anything by it, and people shouldn’t take it personally.” The problem was almost every person did take it personally. He knew his angry outbursts were happening, but he didn’t care. At least, he didn’t care enough to make a change. The result was people wouldn’t tell him things and people avoided him.

These two skills – self-awareness and self-control – are foundational principles of emotional intelligence. If you’re not familiar with exercising self-awareness and, in turn, self-control, the good news is these behaviors can be learned. Obviously, these will come more naturally to some people than others, but anyone can learn them. One way to improve is to spend some time evaluating how we handled a situation that didn’t go well. Asking ourselves questions like these can be useful:

  • Am I looking at this situation in the right way?
  • Should I have approached the other person the way I did? How could I have handled it differently or more effectively?
  • How would I have reacted if I were in the other person’s place?
  • Is there another way of looking at this situation?
  • What will I do differently the next time I’m in a similar situation?

Sometimes holding up a mirror to ourselves and honestly assessing how we handled a situation can help us be better and more self-aware. Good leaders who want to continue to grow and make a positive impact in their employees’ lives should engage in this process and questioning as often as possible. The key to growing as a leader is digging deeper, leading from within and becoming more emotionally intelligent, and the way to do that is to become more self-aware and exercise better self-control. 

Joe Bertotto has more than three decades of experience helping leaders improve their workplace cultures. He is the chief culture officer at Vizo Financial Corporate Credit Union and a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach. In 2014, Joe was named a Credit Union Rock Star by Credit Union Magazine. He also recently published his book, Pick Up the Gum Wrapper: How To Create a Workplace That Increases Performance While Improving Lives, which credit union leaders have been using as a guide to increase the effectiveness of their leadership skills and overall culture.