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Strategic Leader Self-Awareness Enablers

A leader should strive for self-awareness. If achieved, the leader sees themselves for who they really are and can adjust accordingly. The self-aware leader understands their strengths and can apply them when needed to help the organization thrive and their followers grow. They also know where they are deficient and can work to eliminate these weaknesses. There are obstacles along the path to leadership development, but there are also ways an organization can support a leader’s growth.


Performance Goals

Leaders are motivated to act the way they do and make the decisions they make for many reasons. The noblest motivation is to enable their performance to improve. The leader should be given the opportunity to give, receive, and seek out feedback from a myriad of objective sources. A leader who focuses on performance improvement is more likely to set concrete goals to achieve a better state of leadership. If a leader emphasizes setting performance goals as a development process worthy of time and energy, they will be more motivated to implement changes to reach milestones. Leaders who waste time protecting themselves from political dangers and warding off threats will spend less time actually improving their performance.[1]


Access to Feedback

Without metrics to measure the effectiveness of efforts to improve performance, leaders will have to rely on their own opinions of their leadership. Metrics of performance come from many sources; the leader themselves, multiple raters at different levels of the organization, and exterior interests like customers. Leaders should be provided with this level of fidelity when working on their development. The variety, accuracy, and volume of feedback only help an objective person accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses as a performer. Providing input to leaders may have to be tailored to that individual. In my interview with Scullard, he explained that a leader with a lower level of self-awareness requires more explicit information to help them open up to constructive criticism rather than defaulting to dismissing or ignoring it.[2]


Access to this information is key. Without it, the valued opinions of others are wasted, and the leader misses the opportunity to put this feedback to good use. Getting this information to a leader can be a challenge, though. The organization must first gather the information through a mechanism or process that overcomes organizational realities. Such realities include ambiguity and conflicting signals in the collection process, the risk that some feel the critiques they provide may come back to harm them, and randomness in when and how the information is sought, collected, and processed.[3] The leader can hardly be expected to process constructive criticisms if the information does not reach them due to organizational incompetency or lack of coordination.[4] A leader that does not perceive there to be a problem because they are never told there is one will not benefit from challenge or exposure.[5]


Action Learning

In addition to multi-rater, or 360-degree feedback, Jay Conger and Ginka Toegel added action learning to the tools available to departments interested in leadership development. Action learning is a method where leaders are sent out of the classroom and into the field to tackle actual real-life organizational issues with colleagues. They found this leadership development tool effective because adults are more motivated to learn when an exercise is more immediately relevant to their work. Particularly with such a complex skill as strategic leadership, action learning can be especially powerful. [6]


Multiple sources of feedback, coupled with active developmental learning tools, like action learning, can help a leader achieve self-awareness, which is the foundation of sound, beneficent leadership. It insulates them from their day-to-day responsibilities, so they can focus on applying frameworks and techniques to tangible problems their organization faces. By facing company-specific issues in teams, leaders can see for themselves what can and cannot be usefully applied when they return to the office.[7]


No leadership development program is perfect. Learning objectives may be missed due to inadequate opportunities for action learning participants to reflect on what they’ve experienced, poor facilitation, and failure by the teaching group to follow up with the participants once they’ve had time away from the experience. But the action learning process, if delivered correctly, involves a continuous cycle of learning and reflection with work-groups of colleagues all dedicated to accomplishing real-world work objectives.[8]


Obstacles to Self-Awareness

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, poetically said, “When you take your eyes off the external realities, turning inward to admire the colorful scenery in your own organization, you may be swept away by the swirling waters of change.”[9] This could also be said of the psyche. When a leader takes their eye off of what others say about them and looks inwardly to admire their leadership prowess, they may miss some important indicators that they are not quite the leader they think they are. While humans are hard-wired to look for deception coming from an adversary, they are less motivated to examine their ego to discover self-deceptions.[10]


Robin Hinkle used a quantitative survey followed by a qualitative set of interviews with students in leadership courses to examine the value of self-awareness on managerial capabilities and effectiveness. Her data confirmed what other researchers saw; to achieve greater self-awareness, a leader requires feedback from others to help them assess how others view them. However, she acknowledged that there are obstacles a leader must overcome on the path to self-awareness. One is incompetence. A person needs the intellectual acumen and skills of an excellent performer to be able to objectively evaluate their performance. If they are not excellent performers, they may not have the wherewithal to accurately assess their leadership abilities. Also, sometimes there is a hidden motive behind a leader’s actions. They wish to feel good about themselves, so they assess their performance as exemplary. This also applies to one’s ego. When managing one’s persona, a leader may misguide others to help them confirm their self-image.[11]


There are many tools available to enable a leader to achieve self-awareness and avoid self-deception. The most important tool, however, is internal. A leader must have the wherewithal to look at their motivations and abilities and understand what is true and what is false. Without this introspection, the leader cannot develop beyond a state of selfishness.


Observations

  • leaders should spend more time striving to achieve performance goals and less time protecting themselves from political dangers

  • organizations should avoid ambiguity and inconsistencies in the feedback collection process for a leader

  • people are more motivated to discover deception from others and less motivated to examine their ego for signs of self-deception

[1] Pienaar and Nel (2017) [2] Scullard, M., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [3] Ashford (1989) [4] Karpen (2018) [5] Bok (1989) [6] Conger and Toegel (2002) [7] Conger and Toegel (2002) [8] Conger and Toegel (2002) [9] Kouzes and Posner (2012) [10] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [11] Hinkle (2018)

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