Self-awareness as a foundation for good leadership

Nov 14, 2016

It’s Wednesday afternoon and Janice storms out of another meeting. It’s the end of the fiscal year and her peers who are other leaders in the organization haven’t made their numbers for the third year in a row. They’re pushing Janice, CFO of the $500 million organization, to fix the numbers, just like Janice has been pushing them all year to manage their budgets better. She’s worried that they only care about looking good, while the CEO’s going to hold her accountable for their shortcomings. She lashes out at her peers, calling them incompetent, and screams at her team for not warning her about how serious the problem has become. As soon as she leaves, her colleagues shake their heads. Typical Janice.

It wasn’t always like this. When she started at the company, she had a team of five people and the company had $50 million in annual revenue. Since then, the company’s become much larger and more complex. The business environment’s changed too, becoming more dynamic and competitive. The company may have evolved to meet new demands, but Janice hasn’t. She’s still managing and engaging with the leadership team the same way she did when the company was much smaller, when she could still be a more hands-on leader. She exceeded the limitations of this leadership style a long time ago and, sadly, fails to recognize it. She could ruin her reputation and derail her career if she doesn’t adapt.

Janice’s story isn’t unique. She’s like many others who are very effective leaders at one stage in their careers or organizations. But as the environment around them changes, these leaders don’t realize that they also need to change. If they refuse to listen to feedback from the people around them—peers, direct reports, and boss—and fail to adapt, they’ll find themselves at a plateau in their careers, or worse, completely off the rails. Such leader failures come at a great cost to the executive, their team, and the whole organization.

That doesn’t need to be how the story ends.

When I met Catherine, she was a new CEO in a new organization. She had a long track record of leading organizational changes at lower levels, such as reorganizing a department or implementing new technology in her part of the organization, and had served on several boards. She knew that being the CEO was going to be very different.Managing the competing demands of her board, staff, customers, policy makers, and a myriad of other stakeholders, all while in the heat of the spotlight, was going to require a new level of self-awareness, adaptability, and leadership. In order to help her meet these demands, she asked for my support as she grew into the challenging new position. The work we did together in coaching help her put mechanisms in place that led to regular feedback from her team, board, and customers about both the organization’s performance and how she was developing as a leader. The feedback wasn’t always easy to hear, but Catherine was open to it and made adjustments where necessary.

After a significant transformation five years later, the organization made some missteps that risked its standing in the community. Catherine got nervous and reverted back to some old command-and-control tactics, which may have worked for her a long time ago, so she didn’t see the negative impact it had on the people around her. Because she worked hard early on to form a culture where her team could provide difficult feedback, some colleagues helped her see what she couldn’t notice on her own. Again, Catherine was open to the feedback, allowing her to learn, grow, and change her behavior.

Which leader do you want to be?

Research from the Center for Creative Leadership shows that leaders are more likely to derail their careers if they lack self-awareness, don’t listen to feedback, or refuse to change. As the business world becomes more complex and dynamic, leaders need to listen to the feedback—both spoken and unspoken—from those around them to cultivate a sense self-awareness and grow to meet the changing demands of the organizations they lead. Your growth as a leader must keep the pace of change in your organization.

Self-awareness is the foundation of all leadership development. A study conducted with business leader alumni of Stanford Business School asked what the most important competency is for leaders to develop. Self-awareness was overwhelmingly scored as the most important skill for leaders to develop.  Sadly, for Janice, she refused to listen to feedback and take the honest look at herself required to cultivate the self-awareness necessary to be successful. Catherine, however, recognized the importance of self-awareness and how regular feedback from others is crucial to developing that awareness. Because of this, she continues to adapt, evolve, and grow to meet the needs of her organization. As she does, both she and her organization continue to thrive.