Self-Awareness: The foundation of leadership

Lindsey Reese
Friday, May 19, 2017

May is always an exciting month –spring weather is here, people are making their summer travel plans, and students are gearing up for graduation. This spring is especially exciting and significant for me because I’ll be one of those students who will don a cap and gown and receive a diploma today.

I’ve been fortunate to spend the past two years pursuing a M.S. in Organization Development and Knowledge Management at George Mason University. It’s been an exciting and challenging journey – one in which I learned as much about myself as I did about my field of study. This outcome was a bit surprising for me, yet extremely fulfilling and energizing.

My program’s curricula was strongly rooted in the idea that a successful OD practitioner needs to have a great deal of self-awareness.  In order to effectively partner with others to help them overcome challenges in their organization, you have to be fully aware of your strengths, weaknesses, biases, and values. All of these factors combine to create the lens in which you view the challenge, diagnose the underlying issues, and help the client discover steps to solve the problem. 

The idea of using the self as an instrument is relevant to all leaders, not just those in OD. Yet, so often the important leadership competency of self-awareness is overlooked. This may be due to our competitive societal culture – someone may be viewed as weak or incompetent if they acknowledge their weaknesses or admit to not knowing something. But when leaders are honest with themselves and have a consistent focus on building stronger self-awareness, the benefits are powerful.

Having a solid awareness of your strengths and weaknesses gives you a starting point for planning your professional development. Your strengths and developmental challenges may shift over time, but a leader who consistently sets aside time to reflect on their performance and assess their behaviors is typically more adaptable and effective in their role. Showing openness and vulnerability can also help to build trust, thus improving the quality of your connections with others. When leaders acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers, they also send a message to their team that it’s ok to make mistakes, ask questions, and request help from others. These behaviors help to promote a culture of learning within the organization.

So how do you develop a stronger self-awareness? In the article, The Self as an Instrument – A Cornerstone for the Future of OD, Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge recommends various ways to improve self-knowledge and awareness:

Develop lifelong learning habits

  • Continually develop and enhance competencies that are important in your role
  • Develop relationships with peers to talk through challenges and discuss different perspectives
  •  Actively seek feedback from others
  • Take responsible risks that stretch your professional comfort zone and proficiency

Work through issues of power

  • Acknowledge personal issues around power and control and recognize their emotional triggers
  • Clarify your personal values and ensure your actions are aligned with those values

Build emotional and intuitive self-awareness

  • Use your personal and family history as a source of strength
  • Identify your fears, blind spots, and comfort zones. Use your emotional comfort (or discomfort) as data in making decisions

Commit to self-care

  • Organize your calendar to include time for reflection and recharging of your intellectual and emotional energy
  • Schedule regular time-off and truly disconnect from work
  • Use meditation or other practices to develop and maintain inner awareness
  • Engage in hobbies and activities that you enjoy
  • Ensure you set aside time to socialize and spend time with those you care about

By incorporating some of these activities and behaviors into your routine, you should find that you’re more comfortable, confident, and effective in your role. Modeling these behaviors may also encourage those around you to do the same.

As I walk across the stage today to receive my diploma, my formal educational journey may be coming to a close, but my journey on the path to greater self-awareness will surely continue. I hope yours does, as well.