Transforming leaders from good to great

Self-awareness emerged as a business concept in 2018 but has now moved beyond the realm of celebrity career coaches into the world of essential business skills. Today’s business leaders must be able to self-regulate and demonstrate a level of self-awareness during the turbulence of economic, personal, and emotional stressors.

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What is Self-Awareness?

You wouldn’t be alone if upon first hearing the term self-awareness in a business environment you were perplexed. Maybe it makes you think of a bearded man meditating on a yoga mat? How can self-awareness make you an effective leader?

Research suggests when we have a clear image of who we are, our feelings and behaviors, and our strengths and weaknesses, we make better decisions, connect better with people, and are more effective communicators. Moreover, the Harvard Business Review states highly self-aware people are seen as more authentic. People are more inclined to follow leaders they view as authentic. 

In his book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, former Medtronic CEO and professor at Harvard Business School Bill George calls self-awareness ‘the starting point of leadership.’ It allows you to manage your emotions and lead with integrity and control over your thoughts and values.

There are two types of self-awareness, internal and external. Our internal self-awareness is the clarity we have on our skills, weaknesses, ambitions, feelings, attitudes, and our place in the world. It is our private self-awareness, providing honest, realistic self-perception, which correlates to higher levels of satisfaction in work and personal relationships. It also improves our mental health.

External self-awareness involves the ability to see how others perceive us, what we stand for, how we typically think and behave, and what we’re capable of. This public self-awareness allows us to view things from other people’s perspectives. It also allows us to empathize with them more easily. In the workplace, empathetic leadership encourages employee engagement and a more productive workforce.

 “The most important conversations you’ll ever have are the ones you’ll have with yourself.’ — David Goggins

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How to Cultivate Self-Awareness

Most of us are not self-aware. Author and researcher Tasha Eurich conducted a multi-year study on self-awareness and came away with this startling conclusion — 95% of us think we are self-aware, yet only 10-15% of us are.

The way to start building self-awareness is through honest conversations with yourself. How do you conduct yourself in the office? How do you display your thoughts, feelings, and opinions? Are you an organized person? Are your presentation skills good, or do you just think they are?

You can practice mindfulness in the workplace to understand more about yourself. Pause your activity, and notice how you feel, think, and react in various situations. Are you the kind of colleague you would want to work with?

That’s the internal bit of self-awareness, but what about the external? To understand how others view us we have to solicit feedback and see if it matches with our internal perceptions. However, this kind of feedback loop is tricky and can cause conflict if we’re not careful.

Research shows feedback like this works best when people on a team support one another and want to contribute to each other’s success. Tell your colleagues to be honest about their opinions of you, your contributions, weaknesses, and talents. It is critical you maintain an open mind and don’t get defensive about what you hear. You should recognize this as a positive experience for making a productive change. 

Once your teammates have provided feedback, take a moment to reflect on what was said. How do you feel about the outcome? How does this match with your internal perceptions? Does this make you feel differently about your impact on the organization?

Five things to keep in mind when asking for constructive feedback

According to the Harvard Business Review, here’s how you make feedback productive:

  1. Assume positive intent. Assume what your teammates tell you is given in the spirit of support and helpfulness.
  2. Have a conversation, don’t gossip or vent. Speak candidly, respectfully, and directly with teammates when offering constructive criticism. 
  3. Care about your teammates’ success. Take an interest in your teammates’ success. Ask questions about their goals and help where you can. Listen and be willing to collaborate. 
  4. Push your teammates to do their best work. Some people want to play political games, but true teammates encourage one another to take risks and they challenge one another. Bring them ideas and ask for input. Embrace the idea that your teammates make you better.
  5. Ask for personal feedback. Before offering feedback, ask for it first. Ask your teammates what you could do to better support their success and then thank them for their input.

“Self-leadership is about awareness, tolerance, and not letting your own natural tendencies limit your potential.” – Scott Belsky

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How to Apply Self-Awareness

Studies done on effective leadership indicate “leaders at the highest levels tend to have better self-awareness than leaders lower in the hierarchy.” These leaders exhibit authenticity and integrity. How do they go from being aware to being an exceptional leader? 


The one trait that consistently showed up in these leadership studies was Self-Management. Leaders were aware of how they were behaving, how others perceived that behavior, and whether it was something that should be modified or could be built upon. They consciously managed themselves.

Conscious self-management can be achieved in four steps:

  1. Be present. Pay attention to the moment and don’t look at your devices to check messages. Give attuned focus to the events, people, and situations in the present.
  2. Check yourself. Notice how you’re reacting, feeling, and wanting to behave. 
  3. Identify a range of behavioral choices. Compare how you want to behave to how you think you should behave. What are the ramifications if you do behave that way? 
  4. Choose productive behaviors with intention. Once you understand what behaviors are available and which ones are likely the most productive, choose the one that contributes most to the good of the team. 

The right types of choices often don’t completely align with our habits or preferences. If they did, we would all be mindful, self-managed leaders and we’re not. Self-awareness is the ability to perceive and make better choices. This can be as simple as listening when you feel the urge to respond. That’s what people around you view as leadership. 

Leaders lacking self-awareness can be seen as arrogant and unpersonable. When we’re conscious of who we are and how we behave, and we’re attuned to the impact and influence we have on those around us, we are ready to make productive choices. In today’s uncertain business environment, this type of leadership excels above all others.

Key takeaways

  • Self-awareness means understanding your strengths and limitations as well as how others perceive you.
  • Self-aware leaders are viewed as authentic and honest.
  • Most people lack self-awareness, but it is a skill that can be developed.
  • Self-aware leaders focus on the current moment and are mindful of the impact they have on those around them.
  • Self-aware leaders practice self-management in all their decisions.We become better at self-management with practice.

Common Questions

How Can I Improve My Self-Management?2021-09-30T11:56:06+00:00

According to Harvard Business Review, self-management can be learned by anyone:

  1. Decide where you want to self-manage. Look for circumstances where your typical behaviors don’t work as well as you’d like. These are ripe for self-management improvement.
  2. Identify what contributes to your lack of self-management. When you fail to self-manage, observe how you feel, what’s motivating you, and how you’re interpreting people and events. Understanding why you make the choices you do is step one in making a change.
  3. Think about your options and how you might respond. Don’t go into default mode. Think about what you want to do and consider whether there are better alternatives. Do your inclined responses align to the best outcome for everyone? Why do you gravitate toward these habits? Insecurity? Laziness?
  4. Create a plan. Self-management involves steps for correcting behavior. If you know you procrastinate too much and that is your default behavior, create a plan to deal with it.
  5.  Practice. To change default behaviors, we need to create new neural pathways and this only happens through practice. We can rewire our brains by consciously self-managing until it too becomes a habit.
  6. Repeat the process. Return to step two and see how you did? What did you learn? Can you do better? You can improve on each self-managed response.
What are other self-awareness skills?2021-09-30T11:56:48+00:00

In a recent article, Business News Daily identified three lesser-known traits of self-awareness:

  • Empathy – Understanding how others see you, provides a heightened emotional intelligence to those around you.
  • Adaptability – Knowing how you will react or behave allows you to pause and adjust.
  • Confidence – Identifying your flaws, needs, and strengths enables you to see areas you can improve and focus on, which builds stronger relationships in the workplace.

Brian Abbey is a writer with 25 years experience in tech, marketing, higher education, and startups. An American, now living in Romania, he creates content for publishers and websites as well as multinational firms in Asia, Europe, and the United States, garnering over 100K readers on topics ranging from medical trends to artificial intelligence and university student engagement.

This is one of our executive briefings taken from our series of professional online business short courses from ELL. We have over 150 courses online with over 1,000 hours of e-learning covering a wide range of topics across leadership, management and personal & professional development created by industry experts and learning professionals.

Emotional Intelligence Course

Emotional Intelligence or EQ (Emotional Quotient) is one of the fundamental skills of adult and working life, at the heart of self-awareness and self-management. Your ability to react, your motivation and overall behaviour, both personally and professionally, are governed by your EQ levels and it is an area of growth every adult should have as part of their personal development.

By the end of this course you will have learnt concepts in how to:

  • Understand the importance of emotional awareness in your life and work
  • Be aware of ways to self manage and self regulate your instinctive responses
  • Make a powerful impact and difference in all you do in all walks of your life

In each of our business courses, you get access to around six hours of e-learning that you can watch, listen and read. There are usually 100 questions and at the end of the course you will receive a certificate of completion that you can use against any personal or professional development requirements. As well as the course, you also receive a FREE e-book that you can read on your Kindle or other e-reader. You also get a FREE audiobook of the course so you can listen to the whole course uninterrupted on your device.

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