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Leadership and Self-Awareness

Leader Beware – ignorant bliss, no matter how enjoyable, is still ignorant. If you’re in a position of leadership and don’t feel you have any blind spots, you’re either very naïve or very arrogant. All leaders have blind spots – the question is what are they doing about them? The reality is most leaders invest so much time assessing the cultural and functional dynamics of their organizations they often forget the importance of critically assessing themselves – big mistake.

I’ve never understood leaders who make heavy investments in personal and professional development early in their careers, who then go on to make only minimal investments in learning once they have reached the C-suite. Learning and development are lifelong endeavors. The learning journey doesn’t come to an end just because you reach a certain station in life – or at least it shouldn’t. It has consistently been my experience that leaders who are not growing simply cannot lead growing organizations. Moreover, leaders who fail to continue developing will always be replaced by those who do. A leader who fails to understand the value of self-awareness fails to understand their own true potential as a leader.

It’s at the C-suite level an executive must be on top of his/her game as they have the broadest sphere of influence, the largest ability to impact a business, and they also now have the most at risk. It is at this place the leader should make the heaviest investment in refining their game, because increased performance will pay the biggest dividends. Let me be as clear as I can – the more responsibility a leader has, the bigger their obligation to be on the forward edge of learning, growth and development.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates had a few guiding principles that today’s leaders would do well to adopt: Socrates said, “Know Thyself” and “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Those leaders who actively pursue gaining a better understanding of themselves will not only reduce their number of blind spots, but they’ll also find developing a sense of awareness is the key to increasing emotional intelligence. The better you know yourself the more effective you’ll be, and the better you’ll relate to others.

Following are 5 things all leaders should embrace if they desire to be more self-aware:

  1. Never Stop Learning: I read an article last week in Chief Executive Magazine profiling 6 leadership lessons from Mark Zuckerberg. Lesson #1 was: “Make your own development a priority – Zuckerberg knew he needed to be a leader (and not just a tech guy) if Facebook was going to go anywhere, so he hired an executive coach to learn management and leadership skills.” If top CEOs, Billionaires, leading scholars, and others who have reached the pinnacle of their profession can continue to invest in themselves, then so should you.
  2. Context Matters: Just as life is not static, neither is the environment you work in. Leadership isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. The best leaders apply their craft contextually based upon the needs of those whom they serve. If you don’t know how to nuance your leadership skills you will simply miss opportunities others won’t.
  3. Be Kind: People go out of their way to help those whom they like. Likewise most people won’t lift a finger to help those they don’t care for. Smart leaders are purposed to build into those they lead. They understand leadership success is found by ensuring those whom they lead are better off for being led by them. Mean, arrogant, or belittling behavior may feed your ego, but it doesn’t serve your best interests as a leader.
  4. Surrender: A leader simply operates at their best when they understand their ability to influence is much more fruitful than their ability to control. Here’s the thing – the purpose of leadership is not to shine the spotlight on yourself, but to unlock the potential of others so they can in turn shine the spotlight on countless more. Control is about power – not leadership. Surrender allows a leader to get out of their own way and focus on adding value to those whom they serve. Forget span of control and think span of influence.
  5. Begin the Process of Unlearning: Just as important as learning, so is shedding the emotional and intellectual baggage trapping you in the past. Human nature causes most of us to hold onto wrong, unhealthy, or outdated ideas, concepts, thoughts, feelings or practices. The fastest way to become more self-aware is to challenge your own logic. If you’re really serious about finding the flaws in your thinking, ask others to help you identify gaps or faults, and then listen very carefully to what they share with you.

Becoming self-aware isn’t difficult, but it will be hard in the beginning. Becoming self-aware requires you to place humility above hubris, and to place a higher value on truth than you do on your ability to rationalize and justify your thinking. I’d encourage you to stay the course as few things of value come easily. Thoughts?

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    John R. Bell

    March 26, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Nice job, Mike. I’ve made a copy and passed it on to those who will benefit most from your insight.

      Mike Myatt

      March 26, 2012 at 10:10 am

      Thanks John. I greatly appreciate your kindness. Hope all is well Sir.

        Rick Baumgartner

        May 18, 2012 at 5:21 pm

        I agree with your point about how important “unlearning” is. It is a lifetime endeavor. I find the more I am honest with myself, most of the problems I have to deal with are not a result of what is “out there” but what is going on inside myself, and my distorted thinking. Having a growth mindset means, I still have many attitudes, behavior, habits to  unlearn. Your article was thought provoking, thanks.

          Mike Myatt

          May 18, 2012 at 5:49 pm

          Thanks for the kind words Rick. We’re all in the same boat with the need to become better at unlearning.

    Rajeev Raghavan

    March 26, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Thank you Mike, for this wonderful article. This was really an eye opener for me the fifth point of unlearning. Am now able to correct this flaw which was holding me tight and I never gave it a thought. Thank you once again.


    March 26, 2012 at 10:50 am

    Hi Mike,

    I really liked your allusion to Socrates: (the only man of his time wise enough to understand that he didn’t know it all and it cost him his life!) Your counsel to begin the process of unlearning put me in mind of something said by Albert Camus in his essays ‘The Rebel’:

    “We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.”

    Again, thank you.


      Mike Myatt

      March 26, 2012 at 11:15 am

      Thanks for sharing the Camus quote. I always appreciate your insights Ron. 

    Dan Black

    March 26, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Being self-aware is so important. I think your point about always learning is important. Those who are always growing and learning tend to have more of a realistic view of themselves.

    I also think being humble allows you to be more self-aware and receive feedback about yourself.

    Great post.

      Mike Myatt

      March 26, 2012 at 11:54 am

      Humility allows you to see in yourself what those who have constructed barriers simply refuse to see in themselves. Thanks for sharing Dan. 

    Mark Oakes

    March 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Great post, Mike

    Mike Myatt

    March 26, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Thanks Meredith – I don’t know about you, but I’m always amazed that Socrates never memorialized any of his wisdom in writing. His collective works were passed down through memorization and third party accounts as chronicled by Plato, Aristotle and others. True humility and wisdom will always withstand the harshest test – time. Thanks for sharing Meredith. 

    Dan Oestreich

    March 26, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    A simple question that leaders can ask (of colleagues, the Board, associates, reports, etc.) is, “How am I standing in the way of the very things I say are important to me?”  The question can have many forms and be applied to many contexts, from weighing in on strategy to relationships with staff.  It’s just a starting point, of course, but it can illuminate some of the blind spots — and learning to ask it sensitively and to receive the answers and learn from them — can be a remarkably profitable discipline and practice.

      Mike Myatt

      March 27, 2012 at 10:55 am

      Asking the right questions, having the right conversations, listening, and then being willing to act are the keys to becoming more self-aware. Thanks for sharing the question Dan. 

    Tanveer Naseer

    March 27, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Hi Mike,

    While reading your post, this phrase came to mind “what got you here won’t get you there”.

    One of the things I see behind this attitude is our own perception of leadership; namely that once you land that lauded position/title, you’ve “arrived” at your destination and invaribly, this leads to people thinking they can now kick up their feet and sit back and enjoy the ‘perks’.

    This, of course, is where we see that clear differentiation between those who see leadership as a perk and those who see it as a responsibility, as the latter group is more inclined to recognize that their role has now changed and they have to learn the lay of the land and what those around them need from them to succeed and thrive.

    Perhaps if we shifted our perception of leadership from being like winning to the lottery to an opportunity to serve others and help fuel the collective success of those under our care, more of us would begin to appreciate this reality.

      Mike Myatt

      March 27, 2012 at 11:00 am

      So true Tanveer – The reason one seeks a position of leadership is always revealed by their actions once they’ve attained the position. Great insights Tanveer. 

    Mike Myatt

    March 27, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Thanks Sarah – astute observation. 


    March 27, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Thanks Mike.  Love this. Your list of 5 things, leaders should embrace is fantastic. 

    I think losing the ego and listening to others is key to self awarness.  Leaders need to start with themselves and realize their strengths and weaknesses before they can truly lead others. H.O.W. can they do this ?  By being Honest, Open-minded & Willing.  Honest with themselves first, then others. Open-minded to hearing and learning new things. Willing to change and do whatever it takes.

    Sorry I am rambling.  Working on all kind of acronyms for LEADERS.  Thanks again Mike.  Take CARE.


      Mike Myatt

      March 27, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      Thanks for stopping by Al. There isn’t a person on the plant who couldn’t do with less ego and better listening skills. That said, I’m not sure the world needs any more acronyms:)

    Mary Jo Asmus

    March 28, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Mike, as always – I appreciate your saying what needs to be said. I’m involved in some large leadership development programs for mid-level leaders at large companies – and yet, I don’t often hear the CEO talking about his/her own development. If they are working on their own learning, they need to shout it out. What are they learning about? How are they learning? It would certainly lend credence to these large programs.

      Mike Myatt

      March 28, 2012 at 3:27 pm

      Point well taken Mary Jo. Leaders who champion programs they don’t participate in are missing the point. 


    March 28, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Mike, great insight. I think you raise an interesting question. How can a leader create a learning organization if they/themselves aren’t learning.

    Tom Currie

    March 30, 2012 at 12:31 am

    Mike, I really like your comments on surrender about control vs leadership.  Control is about yourself.  Leadership is about others.

      Mike Myatt

      March 31, 2012 at 7:51 am

      Thanks Tom. I agree with your observation “control is about yourself. Leadership is about others.” Continuing that line of thinking, control is about power – leadership is about service. Thanks for sharing Tom. 


    March 30, 2012 at 12:51 am

    are certain things you do not realize until you read them, and
    through your article I have come to realize those few but interesting
    and effective way to leadership.The hit of the Article”Surrender
    allows a leader to get out of their own way and focus on adding value
    to those whom they serve. Forget span of control and think span of
    influence “Thanks once again!!

    Mr Cory Carter

    April 14, 2012 at 11:34 am

    It should be noted, with an empathetic sigh; leadership and position are two mutually exclusive ideas. We find ouselves continuously in conflict with understanding how to be a better leader as a whole. Whether it be one person leading another, or one person leading thousands the criteria never changes. We can sit for centuries and define and redefine leadership traits; however when we realize a simple fundamental truth that leadership doesn’t lead to better positions, titles and money; that it leads to a personal growth that can only be compared to spiritual growth. When we, as a group decide that putting an adjective in front of leadership justifies the level of personal ‘spiritual’ growth we will find that not only is a redefinition necessary but that we lead ourselves astray. Leaders, true leaders, lead for the benefit of others, a selflessness in service.

    Any endeavor performed for the benefit of where one may end up in life does not reap from the burdens of leadership, but that of managment. If any of us are naive enough to believe that a CEO is the most important person in a company, then you are sorely off track. How much, in our global pursuits do you think those at the bottom of the pyramid trully care about the CEO? Those, which one may call bottom feeders are not ‘decision-makers’ yet see if they are not more able to effect the bottom line then our sweet C-Suite folks. Leadership traits aside, it takes a basic 3 things to capture men in an idea: Purpose, Motivation and Direction.

    One must be in love with leading men and women, a ‘spiritual’ movement towards a ‘Mecca’ of self-actualization. There is no secret to the idea of leading from the top, never has and never will be. It’s only difficult because we condition ourselves to care only for self. Leadership, now all of you still with at this point; this is the coup de etat of leading: Leadership is Love. You must absolutely love leading, which means you love those you lead and the ‘promise land’ you leading them to must without a shadow of doubt be worth the journey you intend to take them to. If you love, trully love your decisions will always be made selflessly. If you believe your company’s promise land is in the best interest of those you love then you will find a way to lead them there. You will do the absolute best you can do for everyone of the people and lives you lead.

    Simple. Equate it to your children, wife and or other family that you may have that you trully love. You sacrafice day in and day out for them. The way you feel on your childs birthday matters very little because you are a good father or mother and you love your child and will do anything with in reason to give you children the best chance at reaching a high status in life. Married men and women are no strangers to giving up self for the idea of both. Always trying to put your spouse in front of your self. This is leadership, this is all you and I need to know to be the best leaders there are.

    ‘Professional Love” If you are able to to do this you have made it. Sorry for the gramatical errors and ect. I wrote with a passion, a passion that will not allow me to delete anything I have wrote here. Thank you, all of you for you time. I am in true apreciation of it.

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    Charles Stone

    May 4, 2012 at 5:09 am

    Mike, well said. I’m currently studying for a masters in neuroledership and neuroscience is reinforcing the importance of self-awareness. thanks for the post.

    Dave Mariano

    July 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Great post. I love #5. Unlearning is so difficult but important. Even at 32 I look at myself and know I need to shed some “emotional and intellectual baggage” from my early 20s. Thanks for the great reminder!

    Dr. Kate Siner

    March 25, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    My new book is right in line with what Mike is talking about here. Life Fulfillment Formula is a simple and powerful handbook on how cultivating Self Awareness in the key to fulfillment, success and making a positive impact in the world.
    Learn more http://www.leadershipsuccessinc.com/life-fulfillment-formula-book


    June 26, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Amazing article,i loved it,Check awesome books on leadership at http://www.booksfromus.co.ke

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