Self Awareness – it really is a thing!

Have you ever stopped to consider what it’s like to be on the receiving end of yourself? Self-awareness is one of the foundations of leadership, but what does it mean for a leader to be self-aware and why is it essential for leadership development?

Self-awareness is defined as ‘the accurate appraisal and understanding of your abilities and preferences and their implications for your behaviour and their impact on others. It’s reality testing; a calibration of yourself.

If you think about the great leaders that you experience, you will often remember them for who they were, how they showed up, how they made you feel and how they enable you to perform. Rather than the tasks they completed.

After all, it is by these attributes that leaders accomplish, by the nature of their role leaders spend much less time doing. Leadership is about relationships and the most critical tool for a leader is their self.


However, this fact can be a burning platform. Have you ever worked for the ‘me show’ leader? Trust me, it’s not pleasant!

It happens for some reasons, the transition into and through leadership is tough. Leadership roles place leaders under considerable pressure and they’re highly visible but in many ways isolated. Leaders have traditionally been recruited because they stand out from the crowd and are highly self-determined. They hold great focus and clarity – they know how to get stuff done! Quite often you’ll find it’s the self-promoting, ensuring ones achievements have shone out that has got the leader noticed in the first place. Why stop something that’s made you successful?

Recent research shows that one in five CEO’s has psychopathic tendencies, similar to the ratios in prisons! The markers of a psychopath’s behaviour are egocentric, grandiose behaviour, completely lacking empathy and conscience. Yup – I can think of a few… However certain aspects of their behaviour (charm, manipulation, grandiosity, insincerity) are part of their success story.

If we go back and consider what leadership is, it’s not about self – it’s about relationship… And if I ask you to go back again and think about those great leaders you’ve experienced, it won’t be about them – it will be about how they engaged you and made you perform. When we work with developing senior leaders and executives around self-awareness our earlier question about the impact they have is key.


In a world where answers are increasingly unclear and when not even the questions seem to stay the same, leaders ability hold the space and work with uncertainty is crucial. As leaders become less about their ego they seek challenges, are able to be vulnerable and not know. These skills enable leaders to access the knowledge and experiences that are held deep within their organisation and build trust. Leaders with greater self-awareness have much more power and presence to do this.

Watch author Tasha Eurich describe how to increase self-awareness and use it to develop influence

As a coach, I see how low self-awareness impacts. Leaders don’t understand:

  • What they stand for, what drives their behaviour.
  • What they need and what triggers them.
  • What their strengths are and where they add real value.
  • Where they fall down and what parts of the thinking and mindset inform that.
  • What lens they hold – how it impacts their decisions and judgments.

A coaching client, recently promoted to a senior global role, had the challenge to understand why performance levels were not hitting targets. The process showed it wasn’t the strategy that was wrong; it had been his predecessor’s high people drive.   The initiatives had been good, but he hadn’t challenged the team to push client margins, close deals and deliver numbers that equated to a strong EBIT. He hadn’t created a balance between people and task. Ultimately his lack of self-awareness of what drove his choices led him to be driven by others and caused him to fail.


Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, style, personality and preferences is the start – but it’s getting underneath these to understand how they combine and impact you. Along with these traits your life experiences, upbringing, wins, losses, beliefs, values, the stories you tell yourself, your fears, desires, needs and so much more create a web that informs how you understand and share yourself with the world.

A lack of self-awareness can cause leaders to derail. Leaders need to be able to decode themselves. Is their response to an issue being characterised by a belief they hold, the pressure to achieve a number or a conviction about the relationship they have with another stakeholder..?

Fenigstein identified two forms of self-awareness: private and public. Private self-awareness refers to an understanding of self that is invisible to others, such as thoughts, emotions, perceptions and goals. Conversely, public self-awareness refers to the awareness another’s perception of oneself and often involves an awareness of visible characteristics, such as mannerisms, behaviours and physical appearance.


Leaders with higher levels of self-awareness are therefore much more attune the impact they have on others and the personality and needs others have and how they align with them to create better outcomes.  Here are some ideas that might help:

  • Seek feedback, make trusted others aware of what you are focusing on and solicit their feedback. Think carefully whom you approach for feedback – it’s useful to have people who bring an alternative perspective, who will tell you honestly, whose views will create new insights.
  • Ensure you build time in to reflect, across a day think about the reactions and feelings you have to people and situations. When you notice a reaction, try and get behind the response you’ve had, what is the story you have about it? What’s that story based on (belief or fact) and is it useful to you?
  • Take some time to do some self-discovery work. Understand your goals, values and the beliefs that drive you. Your values have a critical role informing your choices, how you respond and what you are seeking.  Having this knowledge helps you to understand and relate to others.

When leaders abilities grow so does their ability to grow others. As a coach and facilitator I listen to your story, I can also reflect your emotions. However, the biggest impact I can have is by opening up your thinking and understanding about what’s driving you

This work enables leaders to work with their ego and go beyond themselves to see and hold the wider system. To work with and alongside paradox and broaden their perspectives to build the opportunities that challenge and uncertainty bring. Until a leader has accomplished self-awareness and can lead themselves this isn’t attainable. This is the stretch for senior leadership today and why whole person development is critical to driving success.