A key trait shared by successful leaders is the ability to engage in self-reflection. In fact, a 2010 study from Green Peak Partners and Cornell University found that "a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success" in leadership.
Experiences lead to increased wisdom when they are reflected upon and assigned meaning, according to Colonel Eric Kail, PhD. Understanding how the things that happen in our lives affect our view of our world, ourselves, and others allows us to "bridge performance and potential." Leaders need to understand how they relate to circumstances in order to be able to lead through those circumstances.
Author and executive coach Victor Lipman adds that because many of the qualities associated with leaders – such as authority and decisiveness – may be perceived as alienating, self-awareness is a necessary moderator. He describes it as an "ancillary" quality that allows the more visible qualities such as vision, strategy, public speaking, etc. to function to their best ability.
Leaders need to determine what motivates them and, consequently, their decision-making. According to Anthony Tjan, CEO and author of research on self-awareness in leaders, being self-aware allows leaders to project conviction, while also evidencing the humility needed to accept others' ideas. Leaders who are aware of their own weaknesses can hire others who compensate for them; the total team a leader assembles should represent complementary strengths that can coalesce to draw out even more self-awareness and achieve success.
Becoming self-aware is not quick or easy, but is likely to provide a good return on investment. Peter Miller, an associate professor of management in Australia, executive coach, and author, suggests a step-by-step process that begins with determining one's personal values, which influence how leaders exert (or don't exert) their power, set the tone of an organization, drive daily behaviors, and determine how they deal with their coworkers. Values, in turn, are tied to ethics – right vs. wrong – which directly impact organizational risk and which have been shown to be positively correlated to strong leadership. An understanding of one's values leads to consistency in behavior, which engenders trust. Tjan notes that it is very important for personal values to align with organizational values throughout the company, in order for employees to be more productive and satisfied.
The second step is identifying one's personality type – the "how" and "why" of behavior. This can be accomplished through psychological testing protocols, such as Myers Briggs, the Predictive Index, or StrengthsFinder, which can help identify the core traits that drive a person's decisions and attitudes. The "five-factor model," a very popular approach to the psychological study of personality traits, assesses people's traits along a continuum of five dimensions: surgency (self-confidence, need for power, extroversion); agreeableness (empathy, need for affiliation); adjustment (emotional stability, self-control); conscientiousness (dependability, prudence); and openness to experience (curiosity, intellect, learning approach). Branching out from understanding one's own personality type to understanding the personality types of others allows a leader to predict behaviors and performance and govern appropriately, creating better communication and outcomes.
The third step is understanding one's cognitive style – the preferred means of "gathering, processing, interpreting, evaluating, and responding to data and information." A steadily increasing amount of data is used in decision-making; because people approach this data differently, they may glean different meanings from it. Leaders need to understand how they themselves do this and how their team members do this. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, describes sensing, intuiting, thinking, and feeling as sub-dimensions of cognitive styles. It is most effective to have team members with all styles, and for a leader to know his or her own style, as well as those of his or her team members, in order to know which kind of leadership will be most effective.
The fourth step is recognizing the existence of, and importance of, emotional intelligence – managing one's own and others' emotions. This includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. Emotional intelligence helps people connect with one another and helps leaders exert the influence they need to exert in order to lead.
Miller's final step is reflective learning – learning that takes place by reflecting on one's own words and actions. He suggests keeping a reflective journal to assess reactions and behaviors surrounding events. When a person considers negative situations to which he or she may have contributed, it is important to think about what they could have done better, and then apply that the next time the situation comes up. Taking note of the expectations or rationales surrounding a decision at the time it is made, and then returning to this at a later date to compare with actual outcomes also helps in the important task of being able to link rationale and motivation to outcomes.
In the same vein, Tamara Rosin, assistant editor for Becker's Healthcare, suggests creating a set of "ritual questions" that are reflected upon each day. She advises that these questions involve considering interactions with others – which were good and which were not, and why – to help gain insight into strengths and weaknesses. Rosin also suggests incorporating these types of questions into group meetings to help improve overall employee communication.
Self-awareness is a broad concept that includes skills, strengths and weaknesses, values, behavioral patterns, and leadership style. Developing self-awareness requires patience, perseverance, and honesty, but a leader who understands himself or herself is in a better position to understand those whom he or she leads and, therefore, provide more effective and successful leadership.