Leadership And Self-Awareness
In January, I am scheduled to give a leadership presentation for a national organization at their meeting in Austin, Texas. At the start of that presentation, I will emphasize that I believe the two most critical elements for excellent leadership are self-awareness and authenticity. I have written about those two subjects previously within this newsletter and this week I came across a piece on self-awareness that truly resonated with me.
My friend Lori Zukin, a leadership coach from northern Virginia, writes her own monthly newsletter. This month’s edition focuses on the importance of self-awareness and how we can all cultivate enhanced self-awareness for ourselves.
I asked Lori’s permission to reprint her content her for all the subscribers of my weekly newsletter and she graciously agreed. I have added Lori’s bio. at the bottom and encourage you to subscribe to her newsletter. Her email address is email@example.com.
Cultivating Self-Awareness | A Primer for Leaders
Keen self-awareness is a fundamental element of effective leadership. It requires you to become an observer of yourself, to make the unconscious, conscious—and in turn you become more aware of the patterns around us. It is a humbling and courageous practice, and much like tending a garden, it requires continuous effort. Whether you are just getting started in a leadership role or are a seasoned leader, here are five tips to help you cultivate or deepen your self-awareness.
1. Reflect—And Notice What You Notice
Effective leaders—and great parents and star athletes and all effective human beings for that matter—don’t just do. We also make a habit of reflection. Each of us is a unique thinker, listener, and meaning-maker. We take in data and use it to interpret (or assign meaning to) the situation at hand. The best of the best take it one step further. They notice what they notice, understanding that bias is embedded in every decision.
Consider a corporate example. If a company is losing market share and attributes this loss to new legislation, they may choose to put effort into lobbying. If they attribute it to product competition, they may choose to invest in R&D. It takes leaders with self-awareness to realize that the choice (i.e., boosting lobbying or R&D efforts) and what’s being excluded (i.e., the numerous other interventions not chosen). Questions such as ‘What are we not considering?’ and ‘What’s the rest of this story?’ can help raise awareness of potential blindspots.
2. Gain Perspective—And For This You Must Move Around
There are a few useful metaphors that relate to taking perspective. First, consider the metaphor of a lens. The stars in the sky look different to an astronomist than to a lay person. An astronomer sees things that the untrained eye simply doesn’t notice. Similarly, the Grand Canyon looks different from the perspective of the river than from the rim. These are lessons from one of my favorite leadership books, Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence by Chalmers Brothers and Vinay Kumar. Changing your lens or angle can help you see what you had not previously noticed.
Another useful metaphor is a balcony. I often encourage leaders to “get on the balcony,” a practice I learned from Heifetz and Linsky’s The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Heifetz and Linsky describe it as “The skill of getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony—an image that captures the mental activity of stepping back in the midst of action and asking—What’s really going on here?” It’s a way to gain perspective while remaining in the moment. It’s also a way to see patterns in ourselves and in others.
3. Know Your Triggers—And We All Have Them
Triggers or hot buttons are a reality for everyone, even the most seemingly even-keeled person. Triggers may be small things that fall in the category of pet peeves or deeply rooted beliefs. When a trigger is set off, you may be less able to think rationally, and your judgement may be clouded.
The word “hangry” is a fun new one introduced in recent years to explain a foul mood if you are hungry and tired. Being tired is a common trigger for many of us—we all need rest, water, and food. When I am in a good mood, I don’t notice the piles of laundry my kids have left on the floor, and I get upset about them when I’m in a bad mood. Being aware of our default mode is key to effective leadership and life.
4. Hit Pause—And/Or Instant Replay
Intentionally slowing things down, or taking a strategic pause, is a skill that leaders can learn to do in the moment. The best of the best take time to pause and reflect first, then to assign the meaning. Consider how football players and coaches use instant replay. Watch, dissect, analyze…Then adjust your game the next play or the next day. Through instant replay, a player can see the game in a whole new way (as the opponent and audience did) and may come to realize a new move to try in a future game. The lesson for leaders is, when you become the observer, you’ll have a whole new set of actions available to you.
5. Find The Gap—Because There’s Always a Gap
You may have heard the comment that all data is “created”—which debunks the notion of data “gathering.” Whether it’s an employee survey or observations of the dynamic in your team meeting, it’s the same principle. We filter our own set of observations or data. That process of filtering means there’s a gap, and self-awareness is about filing the gap. In the workplace and in our personal lives, we solve problems based on the observations we pay attention to, and the meaning we assign to them. But what about the observations we are not paying attention to?
When we reframe a problem, drawing from previously unnoticed observations, we then are able to create new outcomes. I love how master coach Julio Olalla explains it in this five-minute video. This graphic from Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence by Chalmers Brothers and Vinay Kumar, also describes it well.
‘First Order Learning’ is a reaction to the “results” that leads you to change your “action.” For example, the quarterback continues to practice throwing the ball even better. In ‘Second Order Learning,’ the quarterback considers the results of his performance in a recent game and reassesses his observations. He changes how he looks at things and becomes open to new possibilities. He is open to new plays, new ways of seeing the field, new ways of interacting with his teammates. In the workplace, ‘First Order Learning’ is learning a new tool for how to give feedback, ‘Second Order Learning’ is being open to the possibility of looking at patterns in own behavior, and gaining insights on what might be causing a particular interpersonal challenge.
It takes more courage to critically examine at how we look at things than it does to simply try new actions. That’s where having a coach, or someone such as a trusted mentor who supports you unconditionally, comes in.
In this short video (under 3 min.), Jason Silva warns, “We have eyes that see not, ears that hear not, hearts that neither feel nor understand.” Silva points out that we get so used to things, even things we derive pleasure from, that we don’t notice them. And once we create a comfort zone, we rarely step out of it. My invitation to you is to take that leap. It’s the same invitation that I share as I coach leaders at all levels, from C-suite execs to newly-minted leaders, and with participants across the globe who join my Live OnLine Classes with Simon Sinek. We all benefit from the leap! Here are three of my best coaching questions to help you identify your next step in building self-awareness:
- What thing, currently invisible to you, that if visible would open you up to a whole new world of possibilities?
- What lens will you use to notice new things as we enter this holiday season? How will that lens make you an even better leader?
- As Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” What if you get on the balcony or engage in ‘Second Order Learning’ and revisit your observations? (Imagine the results!)
Ready, set, go? I am right there with you.
Lori Zukin is a coach who works with teams and leaders—in particular leaders at the C-suite level—to help them maximize their potential, overcome obstacles, and slow down to speed up. Her motto is, “Do what you love; love what you do.” She has experience across a range of sectors from technology to healthcare and sports, to finance and consulting. Lori teaches coaches at Georgetown University and at Corentus Inc., and she previously served as a coach for the Bush-Clinton Presidential Leadership Scholars Program. Prior to founding Zukin Leadership, she was an executive at Booz Allen Hamilton. Lori lives in Arlington, VA, with her two sons and husband, and when not at work, exercises with her friends and gets out in nature. (There’s nothing like a long walk to boost creativity!)