top of page

Leaders Achieve Self-Awareness Through Feedback

Leadership development is dependent on performance appraisal. A leader cannot correct behavior that is harmful to the organization or build on behavior beneficial to the organization and their constituents if they don’t understand the effects of their performance. Self-awareness is all about understanding how one’s performance affects others. To form an accurate perception of one’s strengths, weaknesses, skills, and abilities, and how their decisions affect others, a leader needs information from several sources.[1] Relying on only a few sources could give the leader a skewed vision of their abilities to lead.

Research shows that self-awareness sheds light on the ethical implications of self-deception. Great leaders know themselves, their attributes, and their limitations. Therefore, self-awareness is all the more important in preventing self-deceptive leaders.[2] A great leader is not afraid to seek out feedback. They care what others think of them and are oriented towards openly receiving feedback.[3]

Why Would a Leader Seek Feedback?

A leader is defined by their actions. Actions are driven by underlying motives. For leaders, those motives could range from the desire for personal recognition to the honest desire to create an enriching workplace with satisfied employees. When a leader is self-reflective, they can examine their true intentions for the courses of actions they take and the values that drive their actions.[4]

South African researchers J.W. Pienaar and Petrus Nel conducted an extensive literature review of the importance of blind spots as a cause of leader derailment.[5] One of their main findings was that promoting self-awareness decreases leaders’ blind spots, and feedback is one of the more effective tools to modify one’s behavior. Feedback as a tool and process can simultaneously promote self-awareness and modify behavior. They stated that leaders who openly seek out and objectively consider feedback from others would be less prone to blind spots, resulting in a more accurate view of themselves. Organizations would therefore be advised to encourage the exploration of the individual characteristics that leaders possess that either enhance or impede the feedback mechanisms and processes they are willing to accept.[6]

Why Would a Leader Not Seek Feedback?

So then, it seems it would make sense that any leader would invite feedback from anyone at any time. Feedback from multiple sources, if openly received, should increase one’s self-perception, giving them accurate indicators of when they needed to adjust their behavior. If the leader blocks or ignores feedback from any source, they lose the benefit of that information and indicator and will thus retain inaccurate self-perceptions about their behavior.[7]

If a leader does not receive feedback regarding their performance, or the feedback is skewed, they may remain uninformed about the perceptions of those they lead or to those with which they report.[8] As stated earlier, it’s the leader’s motives that drive their willingness to accept feedback. A leader that uses their position to enhance their career at the expense of others likely will not seek out the views of others or will selectively process only self-supporting views.[9] Their motives for ignoring feedback, however, may be less sinister. Not all leaders are super self-confident in their abilities to lead. Some leaders feel more vulnerable to and fear exposure from perceptive feedback.[10] Leadership development is a process, and leaders traverse through different stages of growth. Critical feedback can be seen as confirmation of their lack of leadership maturity.

Upward Feedback

Being open to feedback, even if it's negative, and allowing oneself to be vulnerable to the candid observations of others are part of the learning process. Kouzes and Posner, in their book The Leadership Challenge, tell leaders that the upside of learning and growing far outweigh the downside of embarrassment felt when a leader discovers that someone does not feel the same way they do about their leadership skills. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable is a painful part of the learning process but is important in signaling to others that they are receptive to learning and doing what is right, even if it’s difficult.[11] When the standards of leadership a leader values come from the opinions of others in addition to internal drivers, then the leader will evaluate their performance based on the considerations of others’ opinions, perceptions, and reactions to their behavior.[12]

Performers have always received performance evaluations from superiors. Leaders receive the same, but can also greatly benefit from the perceptions of those they lead. An essential element of the 360-degree feedback process is from direct reports. 360-degree feedback involves receiving feedback of people from all quadrants; leaders, followers, peers, customers, etc. This comprehensive look exposes a leader to the opinions of a myriad of people with different perspectives. This process also exposes them to the perceptions of those they lead and serve in an upward process.[13] Pienaar and Nel espoused this method as being especially valuable to developing leaders. They explain that direct reports are the direct targets of their leader’s behavior. Who better than they, Pienaar and Nel explained, to provide feedback based on first-hand experiences. Their feedback is all the more important because often a leader’s behavior is only experienced between leaders and subordinates.[14]

There is not a lack of information available to leaders to help them achieve greatness. On the contrary, feedback is plenty. The leader must be self-confident enough to accept feedback from all sources. The greater the number of sources of information, the more detailed picture a leader develops about their performance.


  • self-awareness is about understanding how one’s performance affects others

  • feedback is one of the most effective tools at showing a leader their blind spots

  • upward feedback enlightens a leader to the unique perceptions of their direct reports

[1] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [2] Caldwell (2009) [3] Pienaar and Nel (2017) [4] Natsoulas (1998) [5] Pienaar and Nel (2017) [6] Pienaar and Nel (2017) [7] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [8] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [9] Taylor (2010) [10] Kouzes and Posner (2012) [11] Kouzes and Posner (2012) [12] Taylor (2010) [13] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [14] Pienaar and Nel (2017)

34 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Recommendations for Future Research

I found a tremendous amount of literature on the subject of strategic leader self-awareness and self-deception. This paper provides some practical recommendations to organizations to help them encoura


bottom of page