If you show up to a board meeting after a difficult morning – when you had an argument with a significant other, say, or caring for a sick family member – it’s natural to be distracted. Low-level anxiety can massively impact our ability to focus and ultimately undermine our performance.

As human beings, we’re creatures of emotion. We’re not always rational or measured. This fact is one reason why self-awareness is so important for leaders. Sometimes, just acknowledging that it’s not been a great day, both to yourself and to others, mitigates the distraction of underlying anxiety and gives you the ability to better focus on the meeting at hand.

More than business

Some leaders wish to project an image of indomitability, but we’re all subject to emotion, and recognising how your emotions impact your behavior is the key to effective work, both personally and organisationally. The most successful boards are built on members’ mutual understanding of one another as human beings. When you’re able to build trust between board members, you’re able to be more collaborative, speaking openly and naturally about opportunities and potential problems. This type of full-spectrum communication allows for greater creativity and more innovative solutions.

By contrast, when your board’s relationships are founded on a purely pragmatic sense of “business” without an emotional component, you might not feel comfortable acknowledging that your bad morning has cast a shadow over your thoughts, even to yourself. You may not be able to alleviate the anxiety that comes along with those thoughts, which may distract you and prevent you from asking questions, or participating as fully as you might have otherwise. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these subtle emotional variables can be the pivot points that lead to wasted meetings, mistaken decisions, and board failures.

It is the skill of a great chairperson to cultivate a board environment of emotional openness and self-awareness – one where people feel free to acknowledge the personal and relate to one another in all their human complexity. These supportive relationships reduce anxiety and open minds to effective collaboration. It’s this ongoing realisation that marks one of today’s major cultural shifts in the professional world: business relationships are about more than business.

Signs of self-awareness

If self-awareness is so important, how then do you look for it in prospective board members?

The good news is, self-awareness is a quality that can’t be falsified, because it has to express itself in a person’s actions. When someone acknowledges their own emotions and the emotions of others, when they seek out and consider feedback and alternative perspectives, this is self-awareness at work.

Self-aware leaders are interested rather than interesting, humble rather than self-promoting, and possessed of a service orientation toward others. They are happy to apologise, admit to mistakes, and recognise others for their contributions. I’ll often refer to strong leaders as first-class “noticers” for their strong attention to detail.

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