Why self-aware executive leadership matters

13 May 2014

Why self-aware executive leadership matters

What defines a self-aware leader?

In every organisation, the answers to this question can spell the difference between sustainable success and a toxic culture where miscommunication and poor performance are standard. Indeed, many organisations labour under misguided or unexamined conceptions of leadership, miring their efforts in politics of fear and obscurity.
Which qualities, then, characterise a truly effective and authentic leader? And why are self-aware leaders so much more effective?

The empathetic style
Self-awareness is a feature of character – authenticity, "what you see is what you get." It is a clear-eyed honesty with and about oneself, as well as an openness to others’ perspectives and perceptions about their personality and behavior.

Self-aware individuals are interested in learning and actively listening. They demonstrate first-class focus and attentiveness; they are humble, modest, and grateful in their approach but not fearful of making tough decisions. When they must make such choices, they execute the most difficult decisions with humanity. They know how to build trust. They are happy with transparency and they act with service to others in mind. When they make mistakes, they own up, apologise, and explain that they are human too.

These are traits we tend to admire in an individual under any circumstances. In leaders, however, such characteristics hold a particular utility for organisational effectiveness. In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman notes that "chief executives need self-awareness to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and so surround themselves with a team of people whose strengths in those core abilities complement their own." Goleman cites research conducted by Accenture on over a hundred CEOs. In this study, executives named the most important skills for running a company. The most commonly reported? Self-awareness.

Consider the value of empathy. This encompasses a range of skillsets and behaviours, all of which encourages free communication and information-sharing. Empathetic leaders demonstrate strong listening skills. They are genuinely interested in others – and the opinions of others. Indeed, they seek out these opinions actively, and not just for show. They use them to shape their own opinions.

These empathetic efforts make colleagues and employees feel valued. It encourages them to share insights which may prove highly valuable, rather than bottling up their opinions or observations for fear of reprisal. In order to make strong decisions, a leader must gather and process all of the relevant information that presents itself to them. In order to do so, they must win the hearts and minds of those around them by being as real and human as possible.

The perils of dictatorship
When leadership fails to demonstrate and live out an empathetic style, organisations suffer. You don’t have to look far to find examples of dictatorial or detached leadership leading businesses into dissolution. Many, like Bernie Madoff, develop a high profile on account of such spectacular failures of leadership.

The inverse of empathy is an isolation from the humanity around oneself, including a diversity of opinions, perspectives, and insights. A dictatorial leader is a “know it all” who doesn’t perceive a need for other viewpoints. The organisational results of this isolation can be accordingly desolate.

Without the sense of psychological safety and security promoted by empathetic leadership, individuals don’t feel comfortable sharing information that is fruitful or necessary for organisational success. Indeed, sometimes this sharing is directly discouraged or rejected. Important data goes uncaptured over fear of retribution; leadership grows increasingly out of touch because no one wants to give them feedback. This is a recipe for implosion.

Reaction versus response

The empathy that characterises an authentic leader shouldn’t be mistaken for softness. Every executive is regularly faced with decisions that require decisive and sometimes tough action. But when these situations present themselves, authentic leaders respond rather than react. Reactions may be purely emotional or ego-driven: a simple expression of anger, for example. A response follows from the particular details of the circumstance – it may mean seeking more information or opinions.

The more self-aware you are as a leader, the more you’ll understand your capabilities – both your own and those of your organisation. By seeking out and understanding the perspectives of those you lead, you may increase those capacities and drive your organisation toward success.