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The Self Aware Leader

“Why should I have to say thank you every time someone simply does their job?” “I bugged the senior team to revamp the website for a whole year but no one listened. Eventually I left the organization because I could see that they wouldn’t listen to someone like me.” “Why don’t junior staff see the value in slowly making their way up the ladder and learning how to see the big picture? It was the way I learned and I’ve done pretty well.”

These are just a few of the remarks I heard in the past week. Even when I held up the mirror so they could hear the replay, these leaders could not absorb what they were saying. They did not hear the I, I, I. They could not hear that there may be more points of view than their own. They did not hear that they may have annoyed those around them. They did not hear their rigidity.

Sadly, this is the norm. Once a person gets even a little bit of power or recognition, they want to protect their status and keep acquiring more power. The focus is on self so all interactions are screened through that lens. What does this person think of me? How can I win this round? What will it take to assert control? These leaders make their flaws obvious. The power plays are on full display and everyone knows this leader is only concerned about him/herself.

The insecure leader is a slightly different beast. They may also want to maintain power and control but their major concern is being viewed as competent, influential, smart and successful. They are indignant when ignored or shut out of key meetings. (“I’m the expert on that topic!) They see jealousy or intimidation where there is none. (“He can’t hear me because he is intimidated by me.”) They seethe when someone else shares in the credit they feel is solely their own. (“The team would have gotten nowhere if it wasn’t for me!) These leaders are also seen for what they are: in need of constant stroking and reassurance.

Power grabbers, narcissists and insecure leaders are all very high maintenance in the staff’s eyes. Elaborate workarounds and adulation just take up too damn much time. Wouldn’t you just love to work for a self aware leader?

Here’s what that would sound like. “Thanks for the feedback. I guess I was careless in sorting out the project.” “These are all good questions but I don’t really have good information to give you answers. I’ll have to get back to you.” “I’ve got to work on my style. It seems that I annoy my boss more frequently than I influence him. I must be doing something wrong.” “I believe Sue is the expert on that issue. Talk to her instead.”

Someone who is self aware is more likely to have genuine self confidence. By that I mean a deeply felt self assurance that is not rocked by people or situations. It is someone who does not need to dominate discussions, hear the sound of their own voice, bend others to their will or point of view, make others look bad to make themselves look good, see everything as a competition, be continuously critical of colleagues or ignore the opinions and needs of others. A self aware leader listens way more than they talk, asks questions to draw out the thoughts of others, is not defensive or threatened by differences, tunes into the mood and tone of the room, is comfortable not knowing everything and generally makes lots of room for others. S/he may be very self contained or autonomous but is not annoyed by or dismissive of others.

There are some leaders who know their strengths and weaknesses but can’t seem to help themselves. They still behave reflexively without insight or intervention. There is hope for those folks if they are motivated to do something different. They can acknowledge their shortcomings or blind spots and commit to small behavior changes that can make a difference.

There are others who will claim they are exceptionally self aware when, in fact, they are totally clueless. These people say stuff like: “I know I can be an asshole but I have it under control” or “I always get high praise for my management style on my reviews because I like to run a tight ship” or “I always ask my staff questions before I offer my opinion. More times than not, they are way off base so I have to bring them around.” Just when you think this person is going to have a flash of insight…they slam that door shut! This is not a self aware leader. This is a control freak.

I wish I could tell you that there are loads of self aware leaders out there. The reality is that people with the drive and ambition and stamina to ascend into these roles usually have a significant dose of “ain’t-I-great”-ness. Conversely, people with a high degree of self and other awareness find leadership challenging. I say challenging because they truly attempt to balance the day to day business needs with the people issues. Where others give lip service to this, that goal is their religion. So there are many days when these leaders leave the office feeling like they let the people down in favor of what was necessary for the business. At some point, that push-pull can be too difficult.

I’ve been fortunate to work with a handful of these leaders. I wish it was the norm rather than the exception. Because what these people are capable of, what the staff benefits from and what the business can achieve is truly remarkable.

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