Most training in leadership has traditionally emphasized the cultivation of functional knowledge or skills (e.g. finance, operations) and a focus on ‘hard’ outputs like profits. But growing research evidence points to how most leaders need to do more to inspire and engage their employees. For example, a global 2016 survey by Gallup found that 82% of employees felt uninspired by their leaders and only 13% felt engaged.

In particular, leaders are failing to address adequately the basic intrinsic motivators and needs employees have at work (e.g. a sense of purpose), which crucially, though, starts with leaders’ own ‘self-awareness’ as individuals. As the famous leadership pioneer Peter Drucker said, “You cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first”. In other words, by knowing and leading themselves better, leaders can in turn more effectively understand and lead others.

What exactly is self-awareness?

Self-awareness can be defined as the will and ability of an individual to know and consciously take note of his/her character, feelings, thoughts, motives and desires, together with their effect on others. In short, it’s about getting to know who you are and what makes you ‘tick’ overall.

Self-awareness also includes how well a person understands how other people view them, in terms of the same type of factors listed above. This dimension is sometimes referred to as ‘external’ self-awareness (to differentiate it from ‘internal’ self-awareness). Very much self-awareness is an interweaving of the two dimensions – of one’s own views and other people’s views – not a single truth.

Also, crucially, good self-awareness is about knowing oneself accurately – rather than creating a self-image (self-concept) that one would like to believe! Most people believe they have accurate self-awareness, but actually very few do – only about 10-15% of people, in fact, according to research (e.g. Dr Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, 2017).

It is also commonly thought that being good on one type of awareness also means being good on the other, but research has found virtually no direct relationship between them. To be fully self-aware, a person needs to work on both internal and external awareness separately and, indeed, achieve a good balance between the two.

A closer look at internal self-awareness

As internal self-awareness includes being aware of many factors, I find it’s helpful to divide it into two sub-categories of insight. Firstly, what might be called ‘character insight’, which deals with the characteristics and traits of a person which tend to be quite settled, unchanging and semi-permanent. Secondly, ‘mindset (or situational) insight’, which covers the more variable, ‘inner-self’ range of thoughts, emotions and feelings an individual has from moment to moment in a given situation.

The main elements that make up character insight include the following types of personal attributes: values (key principles that guide an individual in life); key beliefs/worldview; temparament/personality (frequent ways of feeling and behaving); life aspirations/ambitions; key skills/strengths and weaknesses; passions/key interests; distinctive habits/routines; key preferences; and personal identity (how one prefers to be addressed or summarily defined as a person).

Additionally, character insight also includes knowledge (and assessment) of one’s overall life condition and circumstances – by considering factors like physical and mental health; relationships; career success; financial position; education/personal development; spiritual health; and overall happiness.

Concerning mindset insight, this covers the range of different cognitive processes, thoughts and feelings applying in a person’s ‘inner world’ in a particular situation. The key elements include: openness; attention (what one notices); focus (where one directs one’s attention); perception (how one interprets what is noticed); memories; assumptions made; thoughts; bodily feelings; emotional feelings; general mood; and intuition (‘inner voice’).

Ways in which self-awareness helps leaders

Self-aware leaders are more self-confident

Individuals who accurately know themsleves (and are mostly at ease with same) tend to be more self-assured, confident and resilient than people who have poor self-awareness. They know how to be true to themselves, know what they enjoy doing, know what they do best, they accept their areas of weaknesses, and are readier to accept feedback or criticism from others. Equally, self-aware individuals typically suffer less from stress or anxiety. In turn, they are seen by other people as more open and approachable, which helps them to have easier relationshiips with colleagues.

Self-aware leaders make less-biassed decisions

Self-awareness helps leaders to be more conscious of their own experiences, values, beliefs, emotions, biases and presumptions and how these may filter or skew their thinking or reasoning. Through self-reflection self-aware leaders are also able to spot where they may have blindspots or inadequate experience, information or insight. Such leaders are much readier to seek and take account of other people’s viewpoints and perspectives before making a judgement or decision. This helps them be more open-minded and make better informed and more rational and balanced decisions.

More authentic leadership

Authenticity in leaders exists when there is a healthy alignment between their true selves – particularly their internal values, personality and beliefs – and how they behave towards other people. So, the better a leader’s self-awareness, the truer he/she can be!

Authentic leadership means leaders do their job without compromising who they really are. They come across to others as honest and genuine. This leads others to feel higher levels of trust and confidence in their leader, which in turn fosters higher levels of engagement, motivation and job satisfaction amongst employees, together with psychologically safer cultures.

Authentic leaders reinforce their self-honesty by exhbiting a range of other supporting traits and behaviours, particularly a high level of personal integrity, a strongly empathetic and caring approach to others, always being very open and approachable, and a modest and humble style.

More tailored leadership and job-matching

By encouraging everyone in their organisation or team to be more self-aware and to be honest and open about themselves – for example, their personality, aspirations and preferences – leaders are in a better position to know how to adapt and fine-tune how they manage and motivate each person. In other words, leaders can adopt more of a tailored, indvidualised leadership approach to everyone.

At the same time, by getting to know more about each of their staff, leaders are in a better position to match each individual to a suitable job or, at least, to know how to refine or adapt a job to better motivate each person and/or use their skills or aptitudes better.

A basis for stronger ’emotional intelligence’

Self-awareness is the starting basis for anyone getting on better with other people, it being one of the four skills that make up what is known as ‘emotional intelligence‘ (EQ)), as defined and popularised by well-known psychologist David Goleman.

The skill of self-awareness is developed by individuals noticing and reflecting on what particular thoughts and feelings they have in a situation with others, noting how they react and respond, and in turn how their behaviour impacts others. This leads to the related skill of ‘self-management’, which is the ability to assess one’s feelings and thoughts in a situation and then control and choose one’s response rather than merely acting impulsively.

Greatly aiding the skill of self-management is the skill of ‘social awareness’, which is the ability to recognise and understand the feelings of other people in a situation and use sensitivity and empathy in response. In turn, this underpins the fourth EQ skill area of ‘social interaction’, which is about developing and maintaining rapport, ongoing relationships and networks with other people.

Research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives. So, with leaders who see themselves as their employees do, their employees will tend to have a better relationship with them, feel more satisfied with them, and see them as more effective in general.

Better learning, motivation and performance – at individual and team level

A concern for self-awareness encourages individuals to become more interested in self-improvement and personal growth and development. This in turn encourages higher levels of commitment and motivation in their job, higher levels of performance and ambition, and increased creativity.

In turn, at the level of a team, a collection of self-aware individuals will tend to be more motivated, interested and ready to monitor and improve how they get on with and work with each other. They will develop more trust, confidence and respect for each other and develop closer, more open and supportive relationships together. They will be readier to manage and adapt their own interpersonal behaviour and agree opportunities for improving collective performance and effectiveness. At the same time, higher levels of team learning will be fostered, together with a stronger ability by the team to adapt and change.

Improved organisational performance and harmony

In turn, of course, self-aware individuals and teams can be expected to lead to higher levels of performance and effectiveness at the level of the overall organisation, as well as higher level of harmony and less conflict between employees. This is not just because everyone is more interested in learning and improvement but because the organisation will typically be more concerned to invest in strategies, schemes and policies (e.g. training, coaching, job-rotation) to support learning as well as other key areas that boost work effectiveness and output – for example, good internal communications, extensive team-working and agile systems.

Better situational assessment and decision-making by leaders

The essence of skilled decision-making by a leader in any given situation is to recognise and consider influences applying in both their external environment and internally to themselves at that moment (what may be termed ‘dual awareness’) and then to pause to calmly, deliberately and objectively as posible choose how to act in response.

Internal influences cover all the various features – as outlined above – making up the leader’s mindset at the time, particularly thoughts and feelings. External influences refer to all facts, circumstances and features applying in the external environment, including who is involved, what is happening, where, when, why and what are the key drivers, but also – importantly – what look to be the key feelings or thoughts of the other individuals involved in the situation (social awareness).

Making an effort in a situation to pause and reflect consciously and objectively is important so as to avoid responding intuitively or impulsively, which can often be human nature’s first response, especially if the situation is considered immediately to be very familiar or very threatening. Instead, taking a pause gives opportunity for the person to swtich to a more detached perspective and to evaluate if he/she needs to control/override any particular mindset influences and then select the most appropriate mental and behavioural response.

A recent, noteworthy book expanding on this approach of ‘mental agility’ by three McKinsey partners (Deliberate Calm, 2022) proposed that the challenging, changing world we face nowadays oscillates between two fundamental types of ‘zone’, with individuals needing a different approach to suit each. A ‘familiar zone’ is an external environment that is well-understood and so individuals can typically call upon an existing repertoire of responses and behaviours without much stress or anxiety.

In contrast, an ‘adaptive zone’ is an external environment that is unfamiliar ‘unchartered waters’ and individuals need to pause to spend time to learn, explore, think and consider new ideas and perspectives before choosing how to respond. A key challenge in this zone is overcoming the ‘adaptability paradox‘: the time when we most need to do something very different is when the human biological response is one of fear and protection, causing us to revert to old patterns, instead of learning new ones!

Signs and causes of low self-awareness

There can be many, different signs of a person having low self-awareness. Some common examples are: being out of touch with their own emotions or strengths and weaknesses; acting impulsively; being highly critical of others; a belief they are always right and not being open to feedback; keep making same mistakes or not admitting mistakes; needing always to be in control and be the centre of attention; believing the world revolves around them; manipulating others to get thier own needs met; a reluctance to accept direct responsibility sometimes; difficult relationships with others; a tendency to overreact in situations and make a drama; judging others; feeling apathetic; and not thinking through actions.

Some common causes of poor self-awareness – or barriers to improving self-awareness – are: a strong ego; holding a senior role or lots of experience in a role, leading to the inclination to think one knows best; a fear of change or facing the truth; a fear of being judged or rejected by others; being too busy to set aside time to do some personal reflecting; feeling vulnerable; a childhood or other big trauma in past life; and a lack of training or know-how in how to be introspective.

Ways to learn and improve self-awareness

Common ways to boost a person’s self-awareness include: spending time each day to ‘check in’ with your feelings and thoughts; keeping a daily journal (recording your emotions as well as what you did); practising mindfulness or a form of meditation (freeing one’s mind to perceive and recognise particular feelings and thoughts); post-event reviews (reviewing how a project or event went soon after it ended to identify how one felt); practising ‘gratitude’ every day (pausing to acknowledge something one has to be thankful about in one’s life); socialising more (improves empathy); goal or life planning (thinking ahead tends to raise consciousness of one’s strengths/weaknesses and emotions); and reading novels (builds empathy).

But, of course, such self-completion methods all rely on the individual accurately recognising and accepting insights and learnings revealed without distortion, bias or denial – which is unlikely to be fully the case! So, ideally, alongside use of such methods, in order to gain more objective and true or complete insights, it’s always wise to ask for and collect feedback from a number of other people who know you well (but only individuals whom you can trust to be true and honest in what they say). Another more objective, third-party method to use is to complete a personality assessment (e.g. Big Five Personality Test or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and/or other psychometric profile/assessment tools (covering areas like driving values/beliefs or thinking styles).