How to Lead with More Self-Awareness

I recently had the pleasure of talking to the Thrive Leadership Women Leaders Network about self-awareness.  Self-awareness has become a central theme in our leadership development engagements because we have seen tremendous improvements in leaders’ performance and well-being once they see themselves more clearly. 


The patterns of behavior that help (like strengths and self-knowledge) and hurt (unconscious self-defeating behaviors) come into focus and allow leaders to pause and consider their best options for moving forward.  In coaching hundreds of leaders over the years, my colleagues and I have seen the most significant improvements when leaders have made the effort to look at themselves closely and realistically.


However, when we first sit with a leader to learn more about him/her at the start of an executive coaching engagement, it’s common for a leader to say, “I’m pretty self-aware.”  This comment jumps out because I know that most of us are not as self-aware as we think.  In fact, Tasha Eurich shares alarmingly bleak numbers about how self-aware we are in her book, Insight.  Eurich estimates that 95% of us believe we are self-aware and closer to 10% of us are actually self-aware.  As a recent Korn Ferry article summarized, lack of self-awareness in a leader is “the most dangerous blind spot.”


What does self-awareness look like in a leader and how can we tell if it’s missing?  I asked the Thrive Leadership Women Leaders Network to consider the qualities of self-aware leaders with whom they work.  The top characteristics they shared were humility, consistency, adaptability, good listening skills, feedback-seeking, admitting mistakes, and taking time to pause before sharing opinions.  When asked about leaders who are not very self-aware, the Women Leaders Network described leaders who come across as defensive when criticized, reactive, stuck, judgmental, showing low emotional intelligence, unwilling to ask for feedback, conflict-avoidant, and poor listeners.  These descriptions are backed by research that shows leaders with better self-awareness tend to have teams with better performance, engagement, and retention.  On the flip side, leaders who lack self-awareness tend to create climates that are more negative and lack key leadership skills such as fostering teamwork and building trusting relationships.


By now, you may be wondering about what you can actually DO to become more self-aware.  You have several options (with or without a coach).  Here are our favorite three recommendations to get you on the path to higher self-awareness.


Strategy #1

Work intentionally to come off autopilot.  Begin this by observing your behavior in action and consider the motivation behind your behavior.  Ask yourself what is behind your behavior.  Consider a tool like the Enneagram, a personality system that looks at 9 different ways people think, feel, and behave.  The Enneagram can help us see WHY we behave the way we do – the motivation behind our behavior and this can really shift things. If you don’t know your Enneagram type and want to explore this further, consider taking the paragraph test in David Daniels’ book, the Essential Enneagram, or ask us about a formal typing interview.


Another way to come off autopilot is to increase clarity about how you really excel.  Take a strength assessment like Via Character Strengths or StrengthsFinder 2.0.  Then think through how you use these strengths to achieve results and face challenges.


Strategy #2

Strengthen your emotional intelligence (EQ).  Emotional Intelligence is the ability to detect, understand, and manage emotions in yourself and others and it’s built on self-awareness.  In working with leaders, we start with a baseline measure (our favorite is the EQ-i 2.0).  From there, our goal is to help clients see repetitive emotional reactions that run on autopilot especially during stressful situations.  Because emotions are a valuable source of information, seeing our triggers can help us understand what drives our common reactions. When we tune into our emotions, we can use and better manage them to read and lead other people more effectively.


Strategy #3

Get feedback from other people to check your self-perceptions and understand your impact on others.  In our leadership development programs, we encourage clients to seek out feedback.  Here are a few of the ways our clients make that happen:

  • Find an accountability partner/enlist the support of a trusted colleague. Let them know which areas you are trying to improve and ask for candid and timely feedback when they see you improving (or backsliding).

  • Hold regular one-on-one meetings with your boss. These intentional conversations can be both tactical and developmental in nature, especially with a focused development plan.

  • Get formal 360 feedback (like the Thrive 360) at least every 24 months to gain clarity on how you are perceived by colleagues, see where you can do more (or do less) and gain insights into your strengths and development opportunities from the people you work with regularly.


Because the secret to increasing a leader’s self-awareness lies is being intentional, we asked the members of Thrive Women Leaders Network to commit to one routine action for 30 days that would allow them to deliberately raise their own self-awareness. Are you up for the same challenge?  Self-awareness is something you can absolutely increase.  The benefits are worth it!


Keep an eye out for additional tips for each of the three awareness-improving strategies in the coming weeks!