Improve your leadership self-awareness with these 4 questions

Self-awareness is the “capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. Self-awareness is how an individual consciously knows and understands their own character, feelings, motives, and desires”. Back in 2003, psychologists acknowledged that self-awareness was “arguably the most fundamental issue in psychology, from both a developmental and an evolutionary perspective.” More recently, the critical importance of self-awareness as a key trait of effective leaders has become recognised.

Because Great Leadership Starts With Self-Awareness, helping my clients understand how self-aware they are now, and how they can become more self-aware in the future, is critical. In this post, I identify four self-reflection questions that I ask and which you can ask yourself too.


Developing self-awareness through self-reflection

Leadership can be viewed through four principal lenses. Self-reflection through each lens promotes self-awareness by allowing a leader to ‘see’ multiple perspectives and form a more complete picture of their leadership style, including blindspots.

The four questions I ask leaders to self-reflect on are:

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 as a leader. Let’s deep dive into these questions to learn more about why answering them 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 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. 

Exploring how an individual sees themself as a leader is the beginning of the unbundling process and starting point for understanding self-awareness.

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. 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. Self-awareness has a close relationship with emotional intelligence (EQ), which is also 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.

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

A big challenge relating to self-awareness is the gap between how we see our selves and how others see us.

According to organizational psychologist and executive coach Dr. Tasha Eurich, 95% of people believe that they’re self-aware, but only about 10-15% really are.

Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, demonstrates that 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.

A coach can ask probing questions and hold up a mirror to their client. This brings some objectivity to the conversation, but even the best coaches can only work subjectively with what the individual chooses to recognise and share. As Adam Grant highlights, even the most self-aware leaders are unlikely to be able to self-reflect completely on how other people see them.

No individual can answer fully the question of how others actually see them. To really develop self-awareness, we need to explore more than just our own perspective. 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 really 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?

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

An effective way to enhance your perspective is to seek objective support. Check out What’s the difference between a coach, mentor & therapist?

How Vertical Development helps new leaders truly transform explores the difference between horizontal development, which focuses on what you know, and Vertical Development, which concerns how you think.

Bored by the same old books about leadership? 8 books that all new leaders should read contains my recommended reading list of alternative reads for new leaders.