Know yourself better; The first step to becoming a great leader | Daily News


Leading your flock into greener pastures – Part 6

Know yourself better; The first step to becoming a great leader

We have been told by the professional gurus repeatedly that the best leaders are “self-aware.” It is an idea known as “values-based leadership,” largely created by management professor and best-selling author Harry Kraemer. In Harry’s world, you are the guinea pig to test your ideas and to put yourself in the right mindset to be a successful leader. Leadership doesn’t depend on your job title or where you fall in your company’s organization chart; it relies on your ability to influence and engage other people.

Let us see what self- awareness really means

Basic self-awareness certainly matters - To be a good leader you should: (a) Know what you are capable of. Assess your own strengths, weaknesses, and motivations, (b) Understand how your behaviour and management style impacts others, (c) Use knowledge about your limits to invite others with complementary experiences, skills and perspectives to expand your vision and help you make better decisions.

When you have clarified your own values and style, you can attain the results you want more reliably.

Clear thinking

This is not something that most leaders do very often.  They are too busy focusing on the multiple tasks of any given day and on things considered far more urgent.  Developing and practicing self-awareness may not get the attention that it warrants, yet it is one of the most important things leaders can do to raise their own and their organization’s performance.

Strong leaders must know and understand themselves.  The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow asserts clearly, “Whereas the average individuals often have not the slightest idea of what they are, of what they want, of what their own opinions are, self-actualizing individuals have superior awareness of their own impulses, desires, opinions, and subjective reactions in general.”

 Like many things, over time we can get better at self-awareness.  Growing awareness allows us to more clearly and vitally focus on building our strengths while intentionally mitigating and managing our weaknesses.

Vulnerability develops strength

The process of discovering one’s own weaknesses is also an act of identifying strengths. The followers respect a leader who recognizes that he or she is not perfect.  They respect the honesty and courage it takes to admit weakness.

By showing vulnerability, leaders establish trust and show they are approachable and human.  The act of showing vulnerability works to build solidarity between leaders and staff and being honest about our weaknesses helps us understand what we need most from those who work with us.

What we do with knowledge

While the ability and desire to recognize one’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial, what we do with the knowledge is perhaps more critical.  In recent years various authors and researchers have strongly pushed us to focus on improving strengths, while not worrying much about weaknesses.

The key premise of this belief is that each person’s greatest potential for growth is in the areas of their greatest strengths.  Thus, if one is focusing too much energy on their weaknesses, they are taking time away from working on their strengths.  Most people would agree that fixing weakness is harder than building on strengths one already has.

This writer believes the emphasis on strengths-based leadership has merits. However, focusing only on strengths has its limitations when our weaknesses are related to how we relate to others.  Relational weaknesses have the potential to be so detrimental and fatal to the leader that simply managing around them will not be sufficient.That means, it is imperative to work on and improve areas of our weaknesses.

Reflect on the impact

Once relational weaknesses are identified, the next step is to reflect on the impact they may have on people you work with.  Strong leaders care about the people they work with and do not want to intentionally hurt their feelings or emotionally harm them. If one’s relational weaknesses create a negative impact for self and others, that should provide motivation to work at mitigating them.

Of course, it doesn’t mean fixing or removing the weaknesses.  In reality, what could be done is to mitigate the impact of these weaknesses.  The difficulty of fixing relational weaknesses is that they are primary a result of personality.  Personalities are a very difficult thing to change, and many would say even impossible to change.

Develop self-confidence

It’s very difficult to be a strong leader without having strengths and a high-level confidence.

Leaders need to show a certain level of self-assurance.  Employees do not want to follow an insecure leader.  People follow leaders who are sure of themselves, it gives them direction and assurance they are moving in the right direction with the needed support to be successful.  Confidence is a strength, but risks becoming a weakness if it blinds a leader to the realities of what may be their shortcomings.

While leaders need to be confident, they also need to be able to see situations clearly and accurately. Extreme confidence bordering on arrogance is a slippery slope.  It may lead to a lack of listening or an over reliance on self, when others are best positioned to help.  It becomes difficult to identify and work on weaknesses if one has an overabundance of confidence.

Improve self-awareness

With self-awareness being so important, what are the ways you can actually improve your self-awareness in leadership?

Assume positive intent

One thing that you should keep in mind to improve your self-awareness as a leader is to assume good faith. When you feel yourself getting defensive and are not in a good mental state to receive feedback, stop and recognize it. Understand that the source of your resistance to what the other person is saying may be your poor assumption of the other person’s intention. You think they are out to get you, or have ulterior motives. So assuming positive intent is a first step to bringing a sense of self-awareness to the situation: You may not being hearing things for what they are because you’re misreading the other person’s intention.

Hold up a mirror to yourself and your decisions

Self-awareness naturally includes assessing yourself for your own mental models, biases, strengths and shortcomings, and the gaps in your perception of reality. Something that Peter Drucker, the well-known management expert, has recommended is: “Whenever you make a decision or take a key decision, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the results with what you expected.” Warren Buffet, in fact, practices a version of this with his investment decisions. This active reflection process helps create a deeper understanding for yourself. And by reflecting on your decisions and the outcomes, you can reach a more objective understanding of what’s working for you as a leader, and what’s not.

It is not all about you

Self-awareness is not just about reflecting inward, and delving into what you are personally feeling. You have to understand what is going on with the other person, as well. What is happening at home or something that a family member is struggling with be affecting her performance? Does this person have preferences and reactions drastically different from your own? Do not assume that this person wants to be treated the way you want to be treated. Embracing this nuance that everyone is not like you is a cornerstone of self-awareness as a leader. It is not all about you, you must seek out to understand others’ perspectives.

Ask your team the tough questions

If you really want to become self-aware, there are a few better ways to accomplish this than asking your team. This means asking questions that you may be even hesitant to know the answer to. For instance, try asking, “When is the last time something I did or said frustrated you?” Or, ask, “When is the last time you felt unsupported as a member of the team?” When you defer to them to shed light on your tendencies, not only will you get helpful information to give you greater self-awareness, but you show them a willingness to become better as a leader. That, in itself, helps strengthen your bond with the rest of your team. Not sure exactly what to ask your team? 

Find an accountability partner

Another effective way for you to develop greater self-awareness as a leader is to hire an executive coach. It can be helpful for two reasons: (1) It creates an accountability partner for you, helping you put into the practice the things you wanted to improve and (2) it forcesyou to have a time to reflect every week, causing you to set aside time to deliberately to become more self-aware. A third-party serving as an accountability partner could be a friend, mentor, spouse or anyone outside the company. You simply need a buddy to help make sure you’re walking the walk when it comes to becoming more self-aware.

However, it does not stop after you have gone through these steps just once--you must be constantly evaluating your progress and ensuring you are staying on the humble, balanced path to being an effective leader.

Regularly exploring your character and leading in ways that are true to your character, can be a real challenge. This is probably the reason why more people do not put in the effort and do the work needed to get there. But the rewards of examining your character and aligning your career with the results definitely makes the effort worthwhile.

(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with over 35 years’ experience in senior business management. Presently he is a business consultant, freelance newspaper columnist and a writer.)

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