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

self-awarenessSo 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.

If you want to improve the climate in your organization, recruit self-aware people. Click To Tweet

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.

Self-aware leaders refuse to let a bad day on the inside spill out to others on the outside. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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.

Leaders who aren’t aware of their limits usually crash into them, painfully.

Leaders who aren't aware of their limits usually crash into them, painfully. Click To Tweet

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!

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


  1. Celso on July 6, 2021 at 9:47 pm

    This is great!

    We once talked about Self-Awareness in our Life Group.

    This would be a great addition to our discussion.

    Many thanks!!!

  2. Zach W. Lorton on July 6, 2021 at 9:38 am

    One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when you have someone acting in an area in which they do not have a natural strength, they can do it, and they may even be effective. But if you ask for someone to continually perform in an area that is *not* in their strength, they will eventually get to a breaking point. I’ve seen this happen in my own family. That’s why it’s so important that the staff and leadership you have in your organization is able to not only put the right people on the bus, but to put the right people IN THE RIGHT SEATS on that bus.

  3. Michael R. Sellenheim Rev. on July 4, 2021 at 12:33 pm

    This is a impactful article- short and sweet, to the point, and do true. I have lived the journey and thank God for clarifying my self-awareness over the years to the place I am today. It is a process derived from experience and bent teachable in my life. Blessings, always!

    • Michael R. Sellenheim Rev. on July 4, 2021 at 12:35 pm

      Spell corrected**

      This is a impactful article- short and sweet, to the point, and so** true. I have lived the journey and thank God for clarifying my self-awareness over the years to the place I am today. It is a process derived from experience and being** teachable in my life. Blessings, always!

  4. Brian M on July 4, 2021 at 12:00 pm

    To point 2 (weaknesses) – I had a mentor use the model of a wooden barrel to describe strengths/weaknesses. You could only hold as much water as your weakest/lowest slat of wood (if you can picture the imagery). Therefore, there’s value in shoring up your weaknesses so that you have more capacity.
    I understood my mentor’s idea, but it sounds contrary to “working from your strengths” (which is honestly more fulfilling!). How would you respond to one who says the best move is to concentrate on improving your weaknesses?

    • Philip Wong on July 4, 2021 at 4:34 pm

      I think it is theoretically good to improve your weaknesses but practically difficult and may not be cost-effective. ( I am a physician and always think in terms of cost-effectiveness.) In other word, it may not be worthwhile to concentrate too much on improving your weaknesses but to let others shine and focus your time and effort on what you do best, as basically what Carey said.

    • Chris Wignall on July 5, 2021 at 10:33 am

      I encourage leaders to satisfy their weaknesses. That is to improve weaknesses enough that they don’t prevent you from using your strengths. Many of us don’t have the resources to hire people to handle these things for us but we can get to a good enough level that it doesn’t limit the opportunities to do the things we most want to do.

  5. Rick Cochran on September 10, 2018 at 8:37 am

    Great on target post Carey! In 42 years of Pastoral Ministry I have discovered a these truths in my own life and in the lives of those who serve with me. I have long proposed that if we focus solely on the spiritual well being of our lives and those we serve (with) we are creating a deficiency in the health of our individual and corporate lives.
    In personal reflection I was really moved by 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. Note the “sanctify you completely” includes our “whole spirit, SOUL, and body…” Our souls are the seat of our emotions and Paul includes our soul (emotional) sanctification along with spirit and body. It is a lifelong pursuit for growth not only spiritually but emotionally and one that certainly involves verse 24…”Faithful is He who calls us (to spiritual, emotional, and physical health) Who will also perform it (in and through our lives)

  6. Riaan Niemand on September 9, 2018 at 7:20 am

    Thanks Carrey great post,

    any thoughts on under developed strong points?

  7. Amber on September 3, 2017 at 10:29 am

    The greatest thing I have ever done for myself is have this hard conversation with myself, about myself. I’m still daily working on it but I have a deep desire to fix whatever I do wrong. In the way of how I respond, how I speak, my facial expression, and beyond. This article is so good. And right on point.

  8. Robert on July 18, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    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.

  9. Josh on May 28, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    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!

  10. Marc Ulrich on April 22, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    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!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 23, 2015 at 6:32 am

      Marc…I LOVE your goals!

      • Marc Ulrich on December 15, 2015 at 3:20 pm

        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.

        • Carey Nieuwhof on December 15, 2015 at 3:20 pm

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

  11. Matt on November 12, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    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!

  12. Maie on October 31, 2014 at 12:15 am

    Thanks for this post… I really needed this…

  13. […] You’re simply not self-aware. (If you want to grow in self-awareness, it’s possible. I wrote more about how to become a self-aware leader here.) […]

  14. Leadership Roundup | Worship Links on October 16, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    […] Carey Nieuwhof on developing the skill of self-awareness in leaders: […]

  15. Kathy Ferguson Litton on October 15, 2014 at 7:19 am

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

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 16, 2014 at 11:25 am

      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).

  16. Larry White on October 14, 2014 at 9:15 am

    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!

  17. Adrian Van Zyl on October 14, 2014 at 3:08 am

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

  18. Bihl on October 13, 2014 at 1:17 pm

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

  19. eddie on October 11, 2014 at 6:54 am

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

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 12, 2014 at 3:29 pm

      So glad Eddie!

      • eddie on October 16, 2014 at 8:13 am

        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….

        • Carey Nieuwhof on October 16, 2014 at 11:09 am

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

  20. Jim on October 10, 2014 at 6:53 am

    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?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 10, 2014 at 7:07 am

      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 on October 10, 2014 at 7:30 am

        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!

        • Carey Nieuwhof on October 13, 2014 at 6:45 pm

          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 http://www.theunstuckgroup.com.

          • Aaron Buer on October 15, 2014 at 9:10 am

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

  21. […] By Carey […]

  22. Chuck on October 9, 2014 at 10:37 am

    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!

  23. Mark Cole on October 9, 2014 at 9:05 am

    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..

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