4 questions to ask yourself if you want to be a more effective, self-aware leader

Many of my coaching clients come to me because they want to understand what type of leader they are now, and identify what they need to do to become a more effective, self-aware leader in the future. As their executive coach, my job is to act as their guide on this journey of self-discovery and learning.

Over many executive coaching conversations, I realised that leadership could be viewed through four principal lenses. Looking at themselves through each lens allows a leader to ‘see’ multiple perspectives and form a more complete picture of who they are as a leader. The Four Lenses of Leadership mental model asks four questions:

1). How do you see yourself as a leader?

2). How do you think those around you see you as a leader?

3). How do those around you actually see you?

4). How does the literature’s perspective on leadership influence your own?

Answering these questions necessities a process of deep introspection, self-reflection and knowledge building, creating a profound basis from which to develop. Let’s deep dive into this mental model to learn more about why answering the questions can help you become a more effective, self-aware leader and why that is so important.

1). How do you see yourself as a leader?

Perspective is the way that individuals see the world. Our personal perception of self and is shaped by our life experience, values, current state of mind, assumptions about a particular situation, and a host of other factors. We all have perspectives, and a sense of self-awareness, about what type of leader we think we are: whether we are good or bad, what our strengths and weaknesses are, what capabilities we think we need to work on to improve and how we might go about doing that. We all have further perspectives on attributes like intelligence, confidence, our physical appearance, how good we are at making decisions etc. 

This is the starting point for understanding self-awareness. Exploring how an individual sees themself as a leader is the beginning of the unbundling process. That’s why the first question I ask leaders is “how do you see yourself as a leader?”

2). How do you think those around you see you as a leader?

Human egos exist on a spectrum. I have directly experienced leaders whose self-talk was overly positive: they thought they were incredible leaders doing an amazing job, when those around them were not so complimentary (at the extreme end this takes the form of narcissistic leadership). More common, in my work with new and emerging leaders, is overly-negative self-talk which causes leaders to beat themselves up about their performance, when actually others around them deeply respect them (Imposter Syndrome – The dark side of leadership sheds more light on this). Neither scenario is healthy for the individual, the people that work for them, or the business as a whole.

Our perception of what others think about us differs greatly depending upon how self-aware we are, a factor closely linked to emotional intelligence (EQ). Research strongly supports the idea that Great Leadership Starts With Self-Awareness and that Emotional Intelligence Is Key to Successful Leadership:

Self-awareness as one of the core components of emotional intelligence. [It is] your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.

Self-awareness and EQ can be developed and coaching is an effective way of doing that. In a survey of coaches employed by global leadership development Korn Ferry, “self-awareness” was the number one topic that coaches worked on with CEOs. ”Interpersonal relationships, listening skills and empathy” was the second most popular.

Helping a client build self-awareness and develop their emotional intelligence by unpacking how they think others see them as leaders and reflecting upon that is vital. That’s why the second question I ask leaders is “how do you think those around you see you as a leader?”

3). How do those around you actually see you?

According to Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, People Don’t Actually Know Themselves Very Well:

Sixteen rigorous studies of thousands of people at work have shown that people’s coworkers are better than they are at recognizing how their personality will affect their job performance. As a social scientist, if I want to get a read on your personality, I could ask you to fill out a survey on how stable, dependable, friendly, outgoing, and curious you are. But I would be much better off asking your coworkers to rate you on those same traits: They’re often more than twice as accurate. They can see things that you can’t or won’t—and these studies reveal that whatever you know about yourself that your coworkers don’t is basically irrelevant to your job performance.

Exploring how people see themselves as leaders, and how they think other people see them is a very helpful exercise. A coach can ask probing questions and hold up a mirror to their client. They can bring some objectivity to the conversation, but predominantly they are working subjectively with what the individual chooses to share. As Adam Grant highlights, even the most self-aware leaders are unlikely to be able to get a complete grasp on how other people see them. No individual can answer fully the question of how others actually see them.

That’s why, with a client’s permission, I ask their colleagues and key stakeholders for feedback about what sort of leader they are. Furnished with an entirely objective, external perspective on how others see them, 360 feedback is one of the most high-leverage activities I undertake when coaching for behavioural change.

4). What’s the literature’s view about leadership?

Entire industries have been spawned off the back of leadership studies. There’s certainly no shortage of gurus telling us how to be great leaders. Some of this is incredibly helpful. Some of it is downright dangerous. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford, sums it up in this McKinsey article Getting beyond the BS of leadership literature:

Management books and commentaries often oversimplify, seldom providing useful guidance about the skills and behavior needed to get things done… This consuming interest in leadership and how to make it better has spawned a plethora of books, blogs, TED talks, and commentary. Unfortunately, these materials are often wonderfully disconnected from organizational reality and, as a consequence, useless for sparking improvement.*

That said, I’ve littered this article with leadership research and insights because the findings are important. But there is no one right way to lead and, because genuinely great leaders are independent thinkers, I prefer to share curated and verified leadership resources (books, blogs, podcasts, frameworks etc) for clients to study in their own time. Reflecting on what resonated, in our coaching sessions, I ask:

  • What positive traits did you learn about which you think you demonstrate? Do you want to leverage them further? How do you do that?
  • What negative traits did you learn about which you think you demonstrate? How do you change them?
  • What things did you learn about that you are not doing but wish you were? How do you build them into your leadership style?

* This evokes Nassim Taleb’s principle of ‘skin in the game’: academics, and coaches like me, can espouse the principles of leadership but we are not the ones under pressure to hit the numbers and lead a team towards a vision on a daily basis.


If you enjoyed this, you might like:

Tasha Ulrich’s book Insight: The Surprising Truth about How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think (Amazon UK, US). You can also listen to her being interviewed in this HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review: How to Become More Self-Aware.

Adopt these 3 habits of mind to become a better leader in a complex world is my summary of key leadership lessons from Jennifer Garvey Berger’s book Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World (Amazon UKUS).