By Ron Price
I’ve worked with so many leaders over the years that when we talk about self-awareness, I’ve heard it again and again: I don’t really know who I am. I don’t know why I am where I’m at, or how I got here.
We have to retrace what caused their decisions about what they studied in school, what their first job was, what roles they accepted. More often than not, they are based on outside influences rather than an intense, deep understanding of who they are. They spend decades realizing that they don’t know who they are, and they still don’t know how to get there!
Self-awareness sounds so simple at first, but we deal with it our entire lives. And without it, we cannot be the leaders we were meant to be.
If you look at the Greek philosophers and their teachings, you’ll find a lot about self-awareness. Socrates said that the purpose of life is to know yourself. That’s great—but is that it? For me, when philosophers say something simple, I always joke that it’s never simple! Socrates spent his whole life teaching this, so knowing yourself has to be more than knowing your physical appearance, more than the color of your eyes and the color of your hair and how tall you are.
After Socrates came Kierkegaard, who said it’s not enough to know yourself. You have to choose yourself. It’s one thing to get to know who you are, and that’s an iterative process throughout your lifetime, but the question is—are you going to accept it? Are you going to embrace yourself or work against who you are? For many of us, our parents first influence our definition of success. Even after grow and begin to know ourselves better, we don’t always embrace who we are because we still want to be something different.
Then another philosopher, Mirandola, came along and said that’s still not enough. You have to create yourself! What I think he meant is that there’s a difference between talent and skill. Talent is what you were given. We all have certain tendencies, we all make certain choices, but skill is what we make of what we learn and what we make of the talent we’ve been given.
Athletes are a perfect example of this. For example, somebody like Phil Mickelson who started golfing when he was young and who’s now won five major championships—I could’ve practiced as much as him, started golfing at the same time as him, and I still wouldn’t be on the PGA tour today! Because he has something for golf that I don’t have: talent.
Even then, talent isn’t enough. Mickelson had to put it to use with years of coaching, practices, competitions, and only then could he turn that talent into a skill. That’s how you create yourself.
A huge part of this is knowing the natural talents you have to build on. You could spend 10, 20, 30 thousand hours practicing something and if you didn’t build on the right foundation, you’ll never reach what you could have been. If instead you know who you are, understand what your natural talent is, and make intelligent decisions to build skills on that foundation, you can go somewhere unique, somewhere that only you can go because you are combining those natural talents and all of that practice to reach the apex of your potential.
So, know yourself, choose yourself, and create yourself. But there’s one more teaching I like to bring to the conversation. While he’s not necessarily considered a philosopher, Jesus said, give yourself. He taught that you aren’t a leader until you’ve given your knowledge away. You can know who you are, you can choose to embrace it, you can develop it, but until impacts somebody else’s life, you aren’t a leader.
This is why self-awareness is the first and most important skill in leadership. It’s in self-awareness that you understand where you’re at, how you can advance, and how you can take others along with you. Luckily, we aren’t stuck with these philosophical ideations. There are some very practical ways to accelerate this skill to heights that we never would have reached if we didn’t have a clear pathway.
There are many ways you can self-evaluate, whether that’s through journaling, taking time to reflect, watching other leaders, or taking psychometric assessments. These assessments are long-developed and tested to help you understand your natural patterns of thought, motivation, and behavior.
I thought I was pretty self-aware until I started taking these, and I’ve been using them now for about 25 years to understand myself better. And every time I take an assessment, I develop new insights. From behavioral styles to DISC profiles, workplace motivators to emotional intelligence, The Complete Leader uses several different assessments to create a model to help us think about how we respond to problems and change, how we influence others, and the things that motivate us and drive our behaviors. This is one way to develop self-awareness.
The second way to become more self-aware is actually by asking others.
When I give talks on leadership and self-awareness, I like to tell audiences something they usually think is pretty odd—I tell them, you know, I’m 65 years old and I’ve never seen the back of my head. This usually brings some confusion and an awkward chuckle, but I go on to explain. If I want to see the back of my head, I need a mirror. I’ve never actually seen the back of my head, and as a leader, if I want optimal self-awareness, I need mirrors to help me.
These mirrors are the people around me who I can trust to give honest feedback. And we have to be able to develop these relationships so that people feel comfortable enough to give it. It doesn’t happen overnight. In demonstrating the sincerity of your request by showing that you’re aware of some of your weaknesses and by asking for specific and timely feedback, eventually you will build the trust needed to receive honest feedback.
You also have to be ready to accept this feedback. It’s a sign of a great leader when they have learned how to listen without judgment. We are often uncomfortable when receiving feedback—good or bad—and jump to the blame, defend, deny response. Our brains are having a fight-or-flight response. You have to learn how to quiet these responses in order to accept feedback positively.
For me, this was one of my happiest leadership moments. What helped me was understanding the neuroscience behind these responses, what’s actually going on in my brain when someone critiques or praises me. It took time, but I was able to eventually ignore that rush of emotion, and simply say, “Thank you. I’m going to take time to process that.” Later, I could come back and evaluate it, and more often than not, I would see the truth of it as a gift. I’ve discovered if you surround yourself with good people, they never give you bad feedback. It’s almost always accurate! The question is if you are ready to receive it.
Through self-evaluation and trusted peer evaluation, you can build and develop your self-awareness skills. Remember: know yourself, choose yourself, create yourself, and give yourself. Only then will you be a complete leader.
This blog is a summary of The Complete Leader Podcast, Episode #10. Listen to the full podcast here.