Self-Awareness and Leadership

© 2016 Richard McKnight

© 2016 Richard McKnight

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2016 McKnight-Kaney.

Despite having been first named by the Buddha over 2500 years ago, the skill and practice mindfulness is all the rage these days. One would think it was invented yesterday.

This blog explains why the burgeoning interest in mindfulness is a good thing when it comes to leadership.

The reason has to do with the centrality of self-awareness, one of the foundations of emotional intelligence.

As one data point pertaining to the importance of the skill of self-awareness, Korn-Ferry has recently developed a psychometric predictor of leadership in which it plays a key role. Self-awareness is one of the “7 signposts of potential to get ahead,” according to the KF research. (The whole KF list is at the bottom of this post.) Entitled, "The Korn Ferry Assessment of Leadership Potential," the instrument defines leadership potential as a person's likelihood of succeeding in a job two levels above their current level. 

Korn-Ferry defines self-awareness as "the ability to identify personal strengths and weaknesses and how they affect others." In other words, those with advancement potential know the effect of their strengths and limitations on others. 

This definition, however, is considerably different than that of Daniel Goleman in his work on Emotional Intelligence. Goleman's definition, taken from a statement he made in 2012 is, "Self-awareness means the ability to monitor our inner world—our thoughts and feelings." Thus, it is about all of our inner experiences: motivations, temptations, desires, and so forth. 

Leadership and self-awareness interests us partly because of the queries lately of several clients about resilience, in which self-awareness also plays a key role. One of those clients is the Chair of the Emergency Medicine faculty at a well-known medical school.

The client knows that resilience makes for more effectiveness in general, and for leaders, in particular. Could McKnight-Kaney help faculty and residents learn to be resilient in a setting where poise and clear thinking are benefits? Well, yes, thank you, we can. (You can read about our program here, offered in-house.)

In the Goleman model, self-awareness precedes intelligent choice. For example, before I call a coworker's idea stupid, it would behoove me to know I am considering doing so, then to choose a response that does not destroy the relationship. Instead of continually interrupting my direct reports, it might be to our mutual advantage for all of us if I am aware that the topic under discussion hits one of my hot buttons.

Goleman sees mindfulness as a powerful tool for developing self-awareness, saying,  "Mindfulness...trains our attention to notice subtle, but important signals, and to see thoughts as they arise rather than just being swept away by them."  

Google also seems to think mindfulness is a way to cultivate self-awareness: the company has built a whole course around it called "Search Inside Yourself." (Chade Meng-Tan's book, Search Inside Yourself describes it in depth.)

Research tells us that men are not as good as women, generally, at being self-aware. But both men and women can be alexithymic, the term given to individuals who have a marked inability to be aware of and articulate their inner experience. The phenomenon, if not the term, shows up on the McKnight Reflection Competency Scale when an individual scores low on these items:

  • I notice my thoughts and feelings without judging or reacting.
  • I am adept at describing—at least to myself—my inner thoughts and feelings.
  • I am aware of how my thoughts and feelings affect my behavior.
  • I am aware of the subtle differences between similar feelings and emotions (e.g., impatience-irritation, uncertainty-confusion).

If leadership is the process of formulating a vision, marshaling support for it, and manifesting that vision in reality, self-awareness is essential. Without it, one's vision may enhance their prospects but not others, they may not be able to choose a response that builds support, and their ability to work that vision through the system may falter. 

Here is the entire list of seven signposts of potential, derived from Korn-Ferry's extensive research. Those who make steady career advancement have all of this, they say:

  1. Wide, diverse job experience
  2. Ambition
  3. Conceptual brilliance
  4. Self-awareness
  5. Drive to be a leader
  6. Learning agility
  7. Derailment risks under control