By Randy Sabourin

I often find myself in the situation of giving professional advice about whom in a group of ‘up and coming’ professionals will be a good leader.  I coach executives in large and small organizations in a variety of market places and there seems to be one critical common denominator among these leaders; the more self-aware they are about their strengths and weaknesses the more successful they are. A small caveat to that statement- they are not only self-aware but are willing to do something with their self-knowledge.

Being self-aware is a little more difficult than introducing yourself to your self in the mirror or reading (and dismissing) your latest 360 evaluation. Understanding yourself is a complex and ongoing process, one you need to be dedicated to in order to see results. I recently tried an app that tracks the calories you take in at every meal. I’ve never been a dieter but I found the process very interesting because I became aware of what I was eating, when and what my caloric intake was. Based on that information I started making decisions about what or how much I would eat, I became aware of what I was eating. As the experience continued I recorded the details of each meal less and less, I felt I had gained an understanding and didn’t need the feedback any longer. Sure enough the success I had gained by being aware faded and I was back to the same eating habits. I started using the app again and I was back in the groove, reaching my goals, staying aware, and receiving positive reinforcement.  The same awareness and feedback cycle is needed in order to increase your leadership self-awareness.

Leadership self-awareness is based on understanding your behavioral preferences, particularly when you are under stress.  Anyone can manage his or her behavior in a calm situation; managing behavior under pressure is much harder.  Performance in the moment- under pressure- is often the difference between success and failure.  Without self-awareness we react to stressful situations consistent with our core behavioral preferences. Behavioral preferences rarely change over time; they are neural pathways created over time and are a combination of nature and nurture that are usually set in our early 20’s. If changing them is near impossible then our objective is to manage them along with the stress that exposes them.

Where to start?

There are a few foundational tenets that are critical to increasing self-awareness and managing your behavioral preferences.  First, use a valid psychometric inventory to determine what your core behavioral preferences are under pressure. There are several valid inventories. We recommend TAIS (The Attentional & Interpersonal Style inventory). Choose one that has been proven valid, particularly the test-retest reliability stats. Test-retest reliability determines if the instrument is predictable and truly measuring your core behavioral preferences not your mood at the moment you take the inventory.  Discuss those behavioral attributes with a professional coach, trusted adviser, or the person certified in the inventory you used.  Your goal is understand how those behaviors manifest themselves under pressure, relate those behaviors to situations that happened in the past that caused problems.  Accepting the reality about who you are as opposed to who you think you want to be or could be is complicated.  Admitting your flaws is an essential step to self-awareness and leadership success. Most ambitious leadership candidates have learned through climbing the success ladder that admitting weakness is generally not a competitive advantage. Becoming the ‘can do’ and ‘go to’ person may give the impression that you can do anything but don’t confuse that with being flawless. Being competitive and driven to success, both great leadership attributes, can also create a barrier to self-awareness if you start to believe your own persona.

The second step is observation. During your next client meeting or session with your team, build in a few places where you can take a minute to see how people are reacting to you. Also note your behaviour, were you impatient, did you have to have your way, did you need to control everything? After the meeting take a minute to reconcile your behaviour to your performance under pressure behavioral profile. Did you act as you always do? Now that the heat of battle is over would you handle the situation any differently? The tendency during this self-evaluation is to justify everything you did as the right thing to do and move on. If you find yourself doing this, solicit help from someone you trust. Have them observe your behaviour and your impact on others during a meeting and discuss it with you afterwards. We call this process notes. It’s a process actors use to give feedback to each other after a performance. The feedback is accepted as constructive and there is an opportunity to explore it but you cannot make excuses or justify it. This process can be a bitter pill to swallow but it can be the key to self-awareness. Certainly trust is the key ingredient.

The final step is recognizing the point of passing from calm to stress reaction, from managing your behaviour to reacting according to your hard-wiring. Being aware of how your behavior is affecting others starts the process of being mindfulness. Mindfulness is like improvisation; it is observing your behavour as it happens. Improvisation is being creative and performing at the same time. The ‘aha’ moment is being aware of your behavour during a heated debate or critical conversation and thinking to yourself “perhaps I should look at this from another angle” or “ am I arguing this point because it’s the best idea or because it’s my idea?” This real time evaluation not only gives you immediate feedback to adjust your behavior, it allows you to use the full range of your creative abilities

The value of self-awareness under pressure is having access to a range of behavioral reactions as opposed to being limited to your hard-wiring. The pressure remains but we perform and think much more clearly, we see more possibilities, and we are more creative.  We do not want pressure to become stress. Under stress our overall brain functions decrease, we miss subtle signs and we tend to solve problems using incremental steps as opposed to using non-linear thinking which gives us a creative solution. Any threat trigger is perceived to be larger than it is under stress. When we prevent pressure from becoming stress we can leverage self-awareness and mindfulness to minimize the perceived danger of the situation.

Take the journey, reflect on your behavior and reap the benefits of leadership self-awareness and mindfulness.


2 Responses to “Leadership Self-Awareness”

  • Steven J:

    Great insight. I’ve been struggling with this issue myself. I will recommend our L&D team contact you directly to discuss how we can use this process in our Leadership development program.

  • Two key takeaways here:

    1. A state of Mindfulness:
    … to enable the idea and action of self awareness to be embraced as a tool for improved communication.

    2. Self awareness:
    …the discovery and acceptance of our behavioural tendencies to and the appreciation of others behavioural natural preferences in order to adjust when necessary in our communication with others.

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