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What Self-Aware Leaders Know…That Others Don’t

So…how self-aware are you?

It’s a skill I’ve been trying to build every year for many years as a leader, husband and friend.

Here’s why.

I realized awhile ago that self-awareness is a characteristic I’m drawn to in people I work with and do life with.

In fact I try to get as many self-aware people on board any team I’m building as possible and personally prefer the company of self-aware people to those who aren’t.

Before that sounds too discriminatory, the good news is self-awareness is a skill and it can be learned.

If you want to grow your self-awareness, you can. If you want to develop your team’s self-awareness, you can.

You just need to know what to look for.


Self-Awareness is A Key To Emotional Intelligence

About 20 years ago, Daniel Goleman rocked the leadership world with a new theory: that emotional intelligence was as or more important to success than intellectual intelligence.

His theory on emotional intelligence is now commonly now called EQ (although Goleman prefers the term EI, not EQ), and many organizations are hiring for EQ as much as they are for IQ or other more traditional hard skill sets.

Goleman identified 5 main components for emotional intelligence, chief of which is self-awareness (you can read about the other four here).

If you want to dramatically improve the climate in your church or organization, hire and recruit self-aware, emotionally intelligent people.

For example, if you had a choice to invite a self-aware leader who had a B+ gift set on to your team, and a leader with an A gift set on to your team who wasn’t self-aware, whom would you choose?

For me, it’s not much of a contest. I’ll take the self-aware leader.

They tend to make a bigger impact in their leadership and they are MUCH easier to work with.

Four Simple But Surprising Things Self-Aware Leaders Know

So what do self-aware people know that other leaders don’t?

In my experience, there are four things. The four things are simple when you think about it, but it’s surprising how many people and leaders lead day to day strangely unaware of them:

1. Their impact on others

Of all the characteristics of self-aware people, this is the most endearing.

Self-aware people understand their own emotions and actions AND the impact of their emotions and actions on others.

That sounds simple, but the implications are staggering.

Think about it. How many times have you had a bad day only to not know why you’re having a bad day?

And then how many times has your mysteriously bad day had a negative impact on your spouse, your kids and your co-workers?

Far too often, right?

Me too. That’s what self-awareness and emotional intelligence starts to address in leaders. It stops that.

Self-aware leaders refuse to let a bad day on the inside spill out to others on the outside. Self-aware people just don’t have many of those days.

Sure…they might not feel great. But they realize their mood has an impact on others, and they regulate it.

Who doesn’t want to be around people like that?

If you struggle with your mood (and how doesn’t?), here are a few ways to handle it:

Be the first to recognize it.

Pray about it.

Regulate it.

Be more interested in other people that day than you are in yourself. (This really helps.)

If you want to become more emotionally intelligent, be aware of the impact of your emotions on others.

2. Their weaknesses

Nobody likes to admit they have weaknesses, but we all do.

The longer I lead, the more I realize how small my sweet spot really is (for me it’s content creation, communication, vision casting and team recruitment…it’s all downhill from those four).

Self-aware people understand their weaknesses and limit their activities in areas for which they are not gifted.

This does two things:

It creates space for others to shine.

It allows them to spend most of their time working from their strengths.

It takes real humility for a leader to admit where they are not strong, but that characteristic is often endearing.

If you want to become more self-aware, understand your weaknesses and start acting accordingly. Your team will be so much better for it.

3. Their strengths

While it may take humility to acknowledge your weaknesses, it doesn’t take arrogance to acknowledge your strengths.

Someone who understands their strengths is not inherently egotistical; they’re just self-aware; arrogant people can just as easily work out of their weaknesses as their strengths.

So…don’t be afraid of understanding and leading from your strengths.

Self-aware people know what they’re best at, but don’t brag. They just do it.

4. Their limits

Everyone has limits. As much as some of us push back on them, they’re still there.

Self-aware people know what level their tank is at and behave accordingly.

When they need a break, they take one. When they’re tired, they acknowledge it and take responsibility for getting some rest. When they are running on all cylinders, they give whatever they’ve got to whatever they do.

Again, everyone benefits: co-workers, their team and even their family.

Ironically, a leader who knows where their limits are often operates at much closer to their limit than a leader who has no idea that they’re tired, over capacity or heading for a crash.

Want to know how to refuel?

Don’t miss my leadership podcast episode on burnout with Perry Noble (Perry burnt out and came back), and here’s an article on how to bring your best to the table every day.

Worried about your limits? Here’s a post that outlines 9 signs you’re burning out.

What Do You Think?

So what have you learned in working with self-aware people…or with leaders who are not self-aware?

What’s helped you grow as a leader?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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  • Robert

    Great post Carey! It reminds me of a definition of maturity from Dr. Jim Wilder who has a whole model for emotionally healthy spirituality. He says that maturity is being able to protect people from yourself [rather than overwhelm them]. This requires what you are writing about — self awareness and other awareness.

  • Josh

    What are some steps to become more emotionally aware? I am I feeling individual and I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve. I have felt exactly what you talked about here, and I believe I’m doing better, but I still struggle very much with THOSE days. Especially being in a church that needs revitalization and change. Thanks for the advice in advance, Carey!

  • My goal for 2014 was to learn how to smile more. My goal for 2015 is to become more Emotionally Aware. It will probably take me longer than 365 days, but this article is a great tool to help me achieve this goal! Thank you!

    • Marc…I LOVE your goals!

      • Carey just so you know it’s taking me longer than 2015 for me to reach my goal. I just reread the article for inspiration.

        • Keep going man. It’s taking me a life time to smile more. 🙂

  • Matt

    I love the way that you phrased, “Self-aware leaders refuse to let a bad day on the inside spill out to others on the outside.” That is pure gold! Thanks for another great post!

  • Maie

    Thanks for this post… I really needed this…

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  • Kathy Ferguson Litton

    I would like to repost this piece on site I run for pastor’s wives. Is that possible and what are reposting requirements?

    • Hi Kathy. You can email me via my address and my assistant Sarah will send you guidelines. cnieuwhof at gmail dot com (sorry…avoiding the spambots).

  • Larry White

    I took a continuing education course back in 2004 for EI and it has had tremendous impact on everything that I do. Now that I am a pastor, I find that a good part of team development is helping everyone learn to become more emotionally aware, especially in the context of being servant leaders. I just started serving a new church in July and this article is a good reminder for me to be working on the EI of the team. Thanks!

  • Adrian Van Zyl

    Aweosme blog thanx, encouraged and challeneged by point number 1!

  • Bihl

    i have been working on this over 2 years now and it has changed my life.

  • eddie

    This is an eyeopener…., just what I need…

    • So glad Eddie!

      • eddie

        This was only one of the comments I gave on your site. The phrases that should be eleminated from everyday live was a blog that I found helpfull..And just as the blog on self awarenes I believe that it is not only for leaders…In everyday live there is so much, and the phrases you refur to are so common used that it’s hard to not use them youreself…self awarenes is a thing that it harder then it seem…I see from myself that things from the past sometimes are simply not washed away and that keeping on to it is easyer than letting it go..eliminating the phrases en being self aware is then not so simple….

        • It’s a process for sure Eddie. For all of us. Thanks for the feedback and encouragement.

  • Jim

    Well said and I totally agree with your comments on EQ and self-awareness. One question: in the artificial environment of the interview process of hiring someone, how have you been able to identify whether someone is actually self-aware or not?

    • That’s a great point Jim. We do an extended, multiple step interview process. We literally spend hours with a candidate in multiple settings and do independent personality tests. You learn way more than you would in a 60 minute interview. For volunteers…its’ easy. We serve for hours with them or get to know them in other situations so it’s easier to spot than when interviewing a stranger.

      • Aaron Buer

        Hey Carey,

        This is a great article. We’ve hired quite a few people over the last few years into our student ministry department and I agree with your assessment on the importance of emotional intelligence. I’m very curious about the personality tests you use. Thanks!

        • Hey Aaron…we use Right Path 360, Strength Finders, and more recently added in Tony Morgan’s program to assess staff strengths. You can reach him at

          • Aaron Buer

            Thanks for taking the time to respond. I’ll check them out!

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  • Chuck

    I could go off on my own perspective on this, but someone else has already put it better than I could ever hope to:
    “Conscience can be a tormenter. In fact, someone said, and I think it’s true, conscience is either your best friend or your worst enemy. Conscience, as we’ve been learning, is a marvelous gift from God. Conscience is an internal component of humanity designed to warn you about sin. That’s what it does.

    And as Paul writes this second letter to the Corinthians, conscience is much on his mind because as it says in Romans 2:14 and 15, conscience either accuses you or excuses you. It either indicts you or it exonerates you. Conscience is your own self commentary on the state of your righteousness or sin.”
    —John Macarthur, in his sermon, “The Soul’s Warning”
    You’re in good company, Carey! Keep up the great work!

  • Mark Cole

    Great post, Carey… I really liked the first point on “Their Impact On Others’.. How we handle stress, tiredness and moods really do impact the people around us.. I want to one of those who brings out the best in the people around me..