The Secret of Successful Leaders: 4 Reasons Self-Awareness is Essential for Leadership

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This post is by Jenni Catron. Jenni is Founder and CEO of The 4Sight Group.

Today’s leaders have the tools to grow things rapidly but lack the emotional and intellectual health to sustain it all.

And the fallout is killing us. 

Our culture has minimized the responsibility and elevated the celebrity of leadership and with this I believe we’ve lost the realization that leadership is a sacred privilege.

Leaders have the power to change or affect the lives of others and therefore leadership is sacred work.

Leaders have the power to change or affect the lives of others and therefore leadership is sacred work. @JenniCatron Click To Tweet

I hope you’ve been influenced by a great leader – someone who led by example with great character and integrity… someone who saw your potential and gave you opportunities to grow and learn. 

And regrettably, I suspect you’ve also been influenced by a poor leader – someone who wielded their influence for their own power and advancement and maybe discouraged and demotivated you.

We need great leaders. 

We need people who recognize the significance of their influence on others and are intentional to use that influence for good.

We need people who recognize the significance of their influence on others and are intentional to use that influence for good. @JenniCatron Click To Tweet 

To be completely honest, my early leadership journey was marked by a misunderstanding of what it really means to lead well. Following the path I had seen from others before me, I expeditiously climbed the corporate ladder, read all the leadership books, barked orders and bull-dozed my way to success. 

That’s what I thought it meant to lead. But I soon realized I wasn’t having the influence I hoped for.  

I was becoming increasingly aware that I needed a different set of skills for leadership. My problem was that I had a hard time keeping up with the rapid rate of growth and change required by my industry, so I was making leadership decisions that were more about my survival than they were about the welfare of my team or the organization.

I was watching my peers burn out at alarming rates because we were operating with a never-ending “get it done” mentality in a culture where hustle was the first priority. The lesson I was quickly learning was that my lasting impact was related to how well I was going to lead myself in the midst of the pressure I felt to perform.

My lasting impact was related to how well I was going to lead myself in the midst of the pressure I felt to perform. @JenniCatron Click To Tweet

In fact, I remember one particular Saturday morning during that season. It should have been a relaxing day without a big agenda but I woke up a ball of stress torn between spending time with my family or using the time to catch up on the mountain of work lingering in my mind.  

My husband picked up on my stress, so he asked, “What do you want to do, Jen?”

I thought it was a dumb question.  I didn’t have time to think about what I wanted.  I was leading a rapidly growing organization, overseeing a multi-million dollar building project and writing my first book.  There was no time to think about what I wanted. There was barely time to do everything I needed to do!

My husband’s question triggered an avalanche of emotions that took me months of counseling to crawl out of.  What emerged was a realization of how disconnected I had become from myself.  

I was lacking self-awareness and it was impacting every area of my life. 

Emotional Intelligence expert and psychologist, Daniel Goleman defines self-awareness as, “having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives.  People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest – with themselves and with others.”

In that season of my life, I wasn’t being honest with myself or with others about my capacity and my limits.  As a result, instead of succeeding, which I was so desperately trying to do, I was floundering everywhere. My relationship with my husband was tense, I was short-tempered with my team, and time with friends was non-existent. 

A crash-course in self-awareness opened my eyes to the importance of this topic.  

I believe that self-awareness is the secret weapon of successful people. 

I believe that self-awareness is the secret weapon of successful people. @JenniCatron Click To Tweet

When we have a deep understanding of what is going on inside of us, we can be more conscious of how we impact others and therefore be more intentional in all we do.

My personal mantra has become, “lead yourself well to lead others better.” I can’t lead others to places I haven’t been to.  

Lead yourself well to lead others better. @JenniCatron Click To Tweet

1. Self-awareness is the strongest predictor of success.

A study by the organizational consulting firm, Green Peak Partners, and Cornell University examined 72 executives at public and private companies and found that “a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success”. 

The study also showed that while experience, confidence, ability to make tough decisions, and other so-called “hard skills” were important, the researchers concluded that self-awareness was the key differentiator for the most successful leaders.  “The executives most likely to deliver good bottom-line results are actually self-aware leaders who are especially good at working with individuals and in teams.” 

Essentially, self-awareness equips us to work with others in a way that leads to results. 

2. Self-awareness equips you to know where to focus.

Rewind to a younger you and I bet you had greater clarity about your passions and goals for life.

Fast-forward and layer on the complexity of work experience, family life, and increased responsibilities, and you’ve likely lost that same level of clarity. 

When we are responding to all the “shoulds” that come at us, it seems we don’t have the luxury of knowing what we really want.

When we commit to being self-aware, we fight to stay connected to our core longings. 

When we commit to being self-aware, we fight to stay connected to our core longings. @JenniCatron Click To Tweet

We know our strengths and weaknesses, which equips us to know where to focus our growth efforts.  The tendency is to feel that this is selfish or self-focused, but the reality is that those we influence get our best engagement when we know ourselves well and are leaning into our strengths. 

3. Self-awareness actually makes you less self-focused.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but the more self-aware we become the less self-focused we actually are. 

The more self-aware we become the less self-focused we actually are. @JenniCatron Click To Tweet

When we are self-aware we are more in touch with how we engage others and how they experience us.  We know when we’re under stress and are more likely to catch ourselves before we say that sarcastic comment or respond curtly. 

The more self-aware we are the more in tune we will be to our emotions and how they are coming out through our actions.  We notice how we affect others and more deliberately consider what we need to do to act in a way that is considerate of others. 

4. Self-awareness prevents you from doing irreparable damage to yourself and others.

Author Parker Palmer shares, “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside of himself or herself… lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.” 

I’m guessing we don’t intend for our leadership to create more harm than good, but in the pursuit of more and better, we neglect some of our most important work.                      

Where does our journey of self-awareness begin?

Leadership coach, Beth Graybill, says there are three important steps of self-awareness:

  1. awareness of myself
  2. awareness of others
  3. awareness of how others experience themselves around me 

Let’s look at these more closely:

Awareness of Myself: 

Self-Awareness starts with self-observation. How well do I know myself? Do I know what I think, feel, and believe, and do I act in a way that is an accurate reflection of how people experience me?

Awareness of Others: 

Self-Awareness increases with the observation of others. Do I know the people around me and do I understand how they will respond to interactions and conversations?

Awareness of How Others Experience Themselves Around Me: 

This final stage involves paying attention to how others feel about themselves when they’re around me. Ask yourself, “Have I ever noticed how I make people feel about themselves around me?” Do you make people feel insecure or confident about their decisions? Do you make them feel empowered or apathetic about their choices? Do I make them feel creative or stifled with their projects?

When we lack self-awareness we miss the social cues that indicate others are walking on eggshells around us or are afraid to speak up.  

Greater self-awareness helps you understand how others experience you and you are able to adjust your style to others rather than expecting them to adjust to you.

Ultimately, self-leadership is a journey. I journey that begins with a commitment to growing in your self-awareness and then embracing the behaviors of leading yourself well. 

Self-awareness is an essential asset in living out your purpose with confidence. 

Self-awareness is an essential asset in living out your purpose with confidence. @JenniCatron Click To Tweet

When you have a clear understanding of who you are, what you value, and what you hope to achieve coupled with an awareness of your emotions and needs, you will engage others with an honesty and vulnerability that is contagious and compelling. That’s extraordinary leadership.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.