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Self-Awareness: Overcoming Self-Deception

Self-deception creates barriers to self-awareness, thus harming one’s ability to assess their capabilities and strengths accurately. Self-deception is especially crucial for those whose every decision affects people organization-wide. Great leaders must know their strengths and limitations so they can show fortitude in the face of adversity while at the same time having the humility to know when they need to reach out for supplemental expertise.

Barriers to the Real

Self-deception creates barriers to accurate self-awareness.[1] This can happen at both the personal and professional levels. The result of one self-deceiving oneself is an internal conflict created between what’s real and accurate and what’s not.[2] Of more significant concern to an organization is the damage a self-deceiver leader causes to the organization writ large and the individuals who serve them. Thus, it is incumbent on the organization and the leaders to admit that self-deception creates blind spots for leaders, where they cannot see their potential for derailment and failure.[3] Leaders must develop a sense of this potentially disastrous failure to see what’s right as measured against extrinsic standards, the influence that self-deceptive behavior has on others, and their impact on the organization.[4]

Discovering the discrepancy between self-awareness and self-deception is an essential step towards effective, authentic leadership. When good leaders who strive for self-awareness find this discrepancy, they tend to react negatively to their error and, as a result, are motivated to correct it.[5] In 1979, researchers Jay Hull and Alan Levy from Duke University proposed a model for defining cognitive organization processes and coding of information they found were important in self-awareness. Through their experiments, they discovered that self-awareness was not necessarily a process, but more a result of the quality of information feedback and one’s understanding of the immediate social situation a person finds themselves in. Armed with a more accurate understanding of their situation and the information they receive, a leader can then work to reduce the difference between the real and the ideal to diminish the self-deceptive state.[6]

A more self-aware leader could see things for what they truly are. It would then make sense that such a leader would be less prone to corruptive acts and immoral and unethical behavior detrimental to themselves, their followers, and the organization they serve. In fact, a more self-aware leader, less prone to corruption, would be even less likely to rationalize corrupt acts internally.[7] That is, if the leader is genuinely a moral person concerned with the well-being of themselves, their followers, and the organization as a whole. This chain reaction of experiencing their environment for what it really is, deciding to be more ethical, having now received this knowledge, and becoming even more capable of leading a nobler life, would be a difficult process to disrupt.[8]

Getting to the Desired Self-Aware State

For some potential great leaders, the road to an accurate self-aware state may be a work in progress. Many forces in one’s environment could be working in the shadows to corrupt even the most ethical people. Helping a leader or future leader recognize the importance of accurately perceiving what’s going on around them and what influences them must be more than just interfering with these destructive forces. Organizational mechanisms in place to help develop leaders should be focused on the sequence of events and influencers leading up to what will be an ethical or unethical decision.[9] After all, as Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel noted in Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It, when a leader has to make snap decisions, they are more prone to influence from unconscious biases.[10] Suppose a leader has a process they can follow, such as one that helps them to more accurately understand a situation aided by accurate information and information processing capabilities. In that case, they will be less reliant on gut reactions and stereotypes.

Self-awareness may not necessarily be a process one goes through. More likely, self-awareness in a leader is developed through the contributions of others and the organization. The resultant self-aware leader is more ethical and a more positive influence for everyone under their care. Followers see the actions of their leader and hear their words and are more motivated to follow them.


  • self-deception creates a barrier between the person who seeks self-awareness and what’s real

  • self-aware leaders are less prone to corrupt acts and unethical behavior

  • organizations must help leaders attain self-awareness by focusing on the sequence of events and influencers leading up to a leader’s ethical decisions

[1] Hinkle (2018) [2] Caldwell (2009) [3] Pienaar & Nel (2017) [4] Taylor (2010) [5] Taylor (2010) [6] Hull & Levy (1979) [7] Desai et al. (2018) [8] Bok (1989) [9] Tenbrunsel & Messick (2004) [10] Bazerman and Tenbrunsel (2011)

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