If you were asked, “What’s the most important leadership trait?”, what would your answer be?
I’m sure you could reel off many things that we all know are essential to being a great leader without much effort…courage, empathy, coaching mindset, adaptability, etc. That’s because being a great leader means having a wide swathe of skills and capabilities and the ability to tap into a multitude of strengths.
But what’s the one thing that matters most? What’s the one thing that, if not present, can ultimately guide a leader towards failure?
A lack of self-awareness will always be kryptonite for a leader. It creates a void, a negative space in which a leader can ignore or simply miss the things they need to hear from others and themselves. It’s a silence that can be deafening.
Self-awareness is umbilically tied to being a conscious leader and setting the standard of ‘What Great Leadership Looks Like’. A leader who carries themselves with a higher level of self-awareness is perceived as authentic, trustworthy, and human. They are the leaders we would choose to follow. And we need more of them; today more than ever.
Having a high level of self-awareness then leads to versatility, the innate and wired-in ability to shift and adapt based on changes that inevitably occur in work. Leadership expert and researcher Rob Kaiser, in this Harvard Business Review article, explores that concept of versatility which he defines as the capacity to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills and behaviors. But without heightened and nurtured self-awareness, a leader will miss the cues to change, adapt, and be versatile. They won’t “see what they need to see” if they aren’t constantly connecting to, and learning from, their own self-awareness.
Here are three things you can do to grow your self-awareness as a leader. Each takes a healthy dose of courage, vulnerability, and discipline to initiate, but each also delivers immense value and reward:
Ask For The Feedback You Need
Building stronger self-awareness starts with direct feedback. A great leader can’t have strong self-awareness unless they actively seek out feedback from the people they work with. By asking open-ended questions that seek understanding (rather than just getting an answer or seeking validation), feedback opens doors to new insights, new conversations, and new thinking that build self-awareness. A “stay curious” approach allows leaders to dive deeper on the feedback and use it as a platform for their own learning.
The added benefit of this approach is you set the course for a culture of feedback in your team. By being open to feedback, you’ll give others the courage to do the same. It’s a virtuous cycle that is so powerful and lasting.
Get a 360 Review
During my leadership career at Electronic Arts, I received many gifts and amazing experiences. One of the most important was the opportunity to do a comprehensive 360 Review as part of a year-long leadership development program back in 2011. The 360 tool we used is the Leadership Versatility Index, one of the most research-grounded and comprehensive 360 tools available. Today, I’m now certified in the LVI 360 assessment and it’s a foundational part of the assessments we offer at Fluency Leadership.
Having a 360 review is something that, once you do it the first time, you ask yourself, “How did I ever operate without this?” It’s especially important in complex organizations that operate at scale, where the multitude of stakeholders, touchpoints and relationships can make it challenging for a leader to be fully self-aware at all times. A 360 review grounds a leader in the honest and thoughtful observations of others, and can quickly turn that insight (what’s really going on?) into action (how am I going to change?).
Check In With Yourself
Here comes the cliché…it starts with you. The easiest and most purposeful part of building awareness is creating a habit of checking in on yourself. By creating the space for frequent (we love daily) self-check-ins, you put yourself in position to constantly reflect, learn in real time, and keep your actions in line with your intentions. Some simple yet powerful questions that can be in that personal check-in are:
What did I hear today that I need to really listen to?
How would I observe my actions and behaviours today?
Where did I not show up as my better self today?
What’s important to remember is complete self-awareness is not a destination you can arrive at. You will never get there and say “I did it”. It’s like a piece string that has no end. The passionate and committed leader will always pursue higher self-awareness. And they know they will never be done. Each day, they will renew their desire for learn more about themselves, to seek out new insights and feedback from others, and change for the better.