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Self Aware or Defended? Your Choice

I know it is the start of another year and you have an impossible list of New Year’s resolutions that you won’t keep past next week. So while you are still feeling hopeful about your ability to change and kick some nasty habits, let me add one more to the list. Right after “exercise regularly” please promise that you will get over yourself by taking a brutally honest look in the mirror. Do you see someone who is pretty damn near perfect or do you see a work in progress? Do you see someone who is smug enough to think there is no challenge you cannot succeed at or someone who has learned from past failures? Do you see someone who is certain you are the smartest person in the room or someone who doesn’t spend much time thinking about that?

Of course these are loaded questions and you know how to pass the quiz so that you sound like a humble, servant leader who is always aware of areas for continued growth. I wonder what your direct reports or colleagues would say. Most of us are a bit of column A and B; it’s not so black and white. Which brings me to the question one of my clients asked: What causes one leader to take on the heavy lifting of self awareness and insight and another to shut that off? Why do some leaders approach difficult and complex challenges with a heaping spoonful of confidence and a dash of vulnerability while others are all bravado? His curiosity arose as he was thinking back over the ups and downs of the year. We agreed that much had been accomplished but it wasn’t easy. In the hands of a tone deaf leader very little progress would have occurred. I remarked that leading major change is not for the faint-hearted or the bullies. That’s when he asked his question about self awareness.

To answer this question let me state two givens up front: self aware leaders are more effective and we all have the ability to become self aware.

So what are the factors that contribute to being self reflective? (Note: each item only has to be present to some degree rather than being a dominant personality trait.)

  • Comfort with a range of emotions; yours and others
  • Ability to acknowledge shortcomings; privately and publicly
  • Desire to keep growing and exploring less evident aspects of yourself
  • Accept fallibility and vulnerability
  • Willing to tackle recurring interpersonal issues
  • Able to make psychological and behavioral changes
  • Open to others’ ideas and feedback
  • Keep ego, power and control needs in check
  • Willing to admit ignorance or inexperience
  • Able to tolerate anxiety, the unknown and imperfections

Most of us have some of these traits some of the time. And most of us approach deeper self knowledge with serious trepidation. I’ll find out that I suck or that I’m stupid or that I’m an empty suit or that I’m an asshole or that I don’t give a crap about others. And worse, others will know all these things about me too. So I’ll keep my defenses up, play the big boss role, never let them see me sweat and everything will be just fine. You can have your psycho-babble self awareness bullshit, thank you very much.

If you continue to choose Door Number Two, Defended, then “show them what they won” (a la Bob Barker). You will be successful…up to a point. Your ambition and self centeredness will create some good results. Your self confidence will score some points. Your certainty will leap over caution. For awhile your boss will be pleased. But your direct reports and colleagues will see you for who you really are: arrogant, bad team player, attention seeking and insensitive. In time, your boss will take a closer look and realize that your results are not what you advertised them to be and that your 360 feedback shows a huge gap between his impressions and everyone else. Being the clever type, you will read the writing on the wall and start an active job search and leave for a new job before you are fully exposed.

I’ve lost count of the senior leaders who fit this description. I refer to them as serial monogamists; moving from one organizational marriage to the next when the going gets rough. This is certainly a choice many make. It is a conscious one. I am called in to talk with many of these folks as the company’s last ditch attempt to reform them. These conversations are usually very short.

Me: I see that you received some pretty critical feedback. How many other times in your career have you heard the same thing?

Door #2: Lots. Probably every job I’ve had.

Me: What can you tell me about previous attempts to address these issues?

Door #2: The usual. First my boss talks to me then HR sits me down and I tell them what they want to hear. I sincerely mean it at the time. The change plans get written up and I feel like a damn performing monkey. I can talk nicer and do what they want but it’s such bullshit. So I just move on.

Me: Is there any reason to believe that with the additional help and investment the company is willing to make on you that you are now willing to make serious changes?

Door #2: Nope.

Frankly, I’m appreciative of the people who are willing to be this honest right away. It saves much time and spares the boss from any wishful thinking.

For those who choose Door Number One, they sound and act quite differently. Here are some real examples.

It had been a long and frustrating day for Sharon. Every hour seemed to present a new crisis. By the time Dev walked in the door with more bad news, all Sharon could do was snap. She chewed out Dev and sent him on his way. She immediately felt badly but had to move onto the next issue. Driving home that night she rewound the tape and realized that Dev was the last straw and that she had over reacted. Her first stop the following morning was Dev’s office. “Listen, I owe you an apology. It had been one of those horrendous days and I took it out on you. I’m sorry. Let me grab a cup of coffee and we can start all over.”

Thomas knew that the culture change he needed to make in the company was going to be very tough. It would be uncomfortable for the staff, hard for the executive team and would require all his courage. The first ten months were two steps forward and one step back; slow but steady progress. Thomas was drained and feeling beat up. The pushback he received was constant and disrespectful. He spent too much time with HR and lawyers trying to get rid of the bad apples. Once a critical mass of uncooperative staff left, things got easier. Now two years into the process, the culture has transformed and the business is more successful than ever. But the toll on Thomas has been huge. “When I began this process I had no idea that it would test me beyond my limits. I’ve had to listen when I wanted to shut things down. I’ve had to be patient when I wanted to scream. I’ve had to sequence actions and allow people time to get used to the new ways when all I wanted to say was This Isn’t Hard Folks. Although I haven’t been able to just act the way I wanted to, I guess I’ve developed some new muscles. As hard as it is, I can now do some things I never imagined. It makes me wonder if I knew what would happen to me if I still would have chosen to take on this challenge.”

Luis was stunned but not surprised by his latest performance review. He had been getting some verbal comments from some of his peers for some time but until his boss delivered the message in writing as well as face to face, Luis was choosing to ignore the whole thing. It was no longer an option to blow it off. “I’ve been told that I talk too much in our meetings, that I cut people off and that I’m too negative. My boss says that I’m always trying to get the team to bend to my point of view. Truth be told, he’s right. A simpler way of putting it is that I’m a friggin’ asshole and I know it. I guess it’s time to face the music. Here’s my dirty little secret. I act this way because I’m painfully insecure.” Within six months Luis’ soul searching and behavior changes were dramatic. By the end of the year his boss, peers and direct reports were confident that the changes were real and permanent.

I can tell you this for certain: defensive leaders eventually flame out and self aware leaders excel with the staff and company results. It’s your choice which path you want to take.

This topic reminds me of a Mark Twain quote: When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years. 


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