4 questions to improve your leadership self-awareness

Self-awareness is considered to be one of the most fundamental issues in psychology, from both a developmental and an evolutionary perspective. As an executive coach, helping my clients develop their self-awareness is therefore one of the most important aspects of my job. Here’s four self-reflection questions that I ask clients, and which you can ask yourself too, to improve your leadership self-awareness.

Accelrating Executive Mastery

Do you want to be the best?

Accelerating Executive Mastery >> is my deep-dive into the metagame of mastery. How can you speed up the rate at which you develop in business, leadership and life? How can you get better, faster?

What is self-awareness and why is it so important for leaders?

Before we dive into the questions, let’s consider what self-awareness is and why it’s so important.

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”. But psychologists have dug deeper and discovered two broad categories of self-awareness, particularly as they relate to leadership:

The first, which we dubbed internal self-awareness, represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. We’ve found that internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression.

The second category, external self-awareness, means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above. Our research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives. For leaders who see themselves as their employees do, their employees tend to have a better relationship with them, feel more satisfied with them, and see them as more effective in general.

What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It), by Tasha Eurich

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 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. One of the first things I ask new clients to do is: describe to me how 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 worked with leaders who thought they were incredible leaders when those around them were not so complimentary (at the extreme end this takes the form of narcissistic leadership). More common is overly-negative self-talk, which causes leaders to beat themselves up about their performance, when actually others around them deeply respect and rate them.

Our perception of what others think about us differs greatly depending upon how self-aware we are, which has a close relationship with emotional intelligence (EQ), something that’s 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.

Another question I ask clients is: if I were to ask X about what sort of leader they think you are, what would they tell me? Whilst this is subjective – the client can only summise what the other person is thinking – it at least encourages then to consider, even just briefly, how others are perceiving them.

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. There’s two obvious ways of doing that:

  1. Ask colleagues for informal feedback.
  2. Have someone undertake 360 feedback on your behalf – furnished with an objective, external perspective on how others see you, 360 feedback is one of the most high-leverage activities you can undertake to drive real behavioural change.

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

There’s no shortage of gurus telling us how to be great leaders but there is no one right way to lead. I’ve littered this article with quality leadership research and you no doubt have done your own research. Reflecting on all the available literature, podcasts, TED talks etc, I ask clients:

  • What positive leadership traits have you learnt about which you think you demonstrate? How do you leverage them further?
  • What negative leadership traits have you learnt about that you think you demonstrate? How do you go about 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?

I’m Richard Hughes-Jones, an Executive Coach to CEOs and senior technology leaders.

My clients are transitional founders, CEOs and executives in high-growth technology businesses, the investment industry and progressive corporates.

Having often already mastered the technical aspects of their craft, I help my clients navigate the complex adaptive challenges associated with executive-level leadership and growth.

Find out more about my Executive Coaching services and get in touch if you’d like to explore working together. You can also read my Complete Guide to Finding the Right Executive Coach for You.

Executive Coach - Richard Hughes-Jones