The Singular Secret For A Leader's Success: Self-Awareness

Apr 17 2014, 6:26pm CDT | by

The Singular Secret For A Leader's Success: Self-Awareness
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

The National Advisory Council of a prestigious west coast business school was asked what single quality they thought would be most valuable for their graduates to acquire as they graduated.  The answer was self-awareness.

I have found, however, that this term is interpreted in widely different ways.  For some it means being introspective about yourself, and especially about your emotions and what causes you to be “up” or “down” in your outlook and behavior.  For others it means being aware of your personal values and life goals. (If you discovered your house was burning, for example, what would you save?)   Still others think it means being clear about the kinds of people you like and dislike and which activities bring you pleasure or boredom.

We take a different view. For us, the most important element of self-awareness, especially for those who lead organizations, is a clear understanding of the impact they are having on the people around them.

Many occupations require the use of instruments and tools.  The professional’s success comes from an ability to use those tools skillfully.  The tool itself needs to function consistently and well.  The engineer using a calculator with flawed programming is in danger of making life-threatening mistakes in the design of a bridge.  The pilot whose instruments in the cockpit show incorrect speed and altitude could be the cause of a catastrophic accident.

Having instruments that measure correctly is critical in order to accomplish effective and accurate work. For example, as a college student, I worked part time in an upholstery shop.  A woman had brought in a needlepoint project she had painstakingly created to cover the seat of an antique chair.  The foreman of the shop took this project on himself because of its sensitivity.  He measured twice and cut once in the good discipline of an upholsterer.  But he’d borrowed a yardstick from someone else in the shop. For reasons unknown, someone had cut one-and-a-half inches from the end of the stick. As a result, the cut fabric wouldn’t properly cover the seat with sufficient material to tack on the bottom side. This made for a difficult conversation.

What is the leader’s instrument?  It is his or her own persona that interacts with many people inside and outside the organization.  Unlike surgeons, pilots, engineers, dentists, or other professionals who use tools as an important adjunct to do their work, leaders rely solely on self as the tool of their trade.

I frequently interact with leaders who don’t understand the reactions of those around them.  They can’t comprehend the lack of commitment on the part of their employees.  They don’t understand the impact they are having on subordinates. They don’t understand why colleagues don’t initiate contact with them, or willingly collaborate on a project. These are scenarios where 360 degree feedback is vital.

The Value of a 360 Degree Review

In the year 1785 the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the following:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us/>/>

In the last few decades my colleague Joe Folkman and I have developed a process by which Burns’ wish can come true, especially for leaders in more sophisticated organizations.  The multi-rater feedback process gives leaders an objective and comprehensive look at the impact their behavior is having on others.  It does not measure inner feelings.  It does not pretend to measure motivations and intents.  It simply says, “This is the impact your current behavior has on the people around you——subordinates, peers, and your boss.” Oh yes, we can include suppliers and customers if you choose, but that is relatively rare.

Now this individual has a snapshot in time of how others are impacted by the behavior the leader displays.  The next step is to take that data and use it for their development.  For some it means following Robert Burns conclusion that this will free us from making more blunders. They need to fix some mistake they are making.  But for the great majority it will give them clearer insight into their leadership strengths.  For this much larger group, focusing on leveraging their strengths is by far the best course of action.

Some will suggest that people themselves know their strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else.  We respectfully disagree.  If the total score on a 360 is used as the best, most objective measure we have of leadership behavior, we would note that self-perceptions are only half as accurate at predicting the total score as the rating of any other rater (e.g., managers, peers, direct reports and others).
The impact of distorted perceptions/>

We’ve all walked by a bank of mirrors that have waves and bends. They make us laugh because the distortions make us look so bizarre.  Yes, for many people the 360 degree feedback process shows that their self-perceptions are distorted from the perceptions of others.  Some of the more frequent distortions are as follows:

  1. The lack of clarity about the organizations plans for the future, when the leader feels it is perfectly clear and that it has been frequently communicated.
  2. The seeming contradiction between what the leader says and what subordinates perceive her to be doing.  “We say we want to be customer centric, but you want to nickel and dime the customer for any little request they make.”
  3. The apparent contrast between stated values and day-to-day policies, such as, “We want to build a trusting climate where people are empowered,” yet a manager needs to get multiple signatures to make something right for a customer.

In conclusion, we reject the image of self-awareness being someone sitting cross-legged in the lotus position, eyes closed, humming and contemplating their inner thoughts.  While we believe meditation and reflection can have positive effects for many, the most valuable self-awareness comes from data that originates with the colleagues you serve. This is the most sure way to get objective insight that you can use to become an ever more effective manager.  Specific skill-building programs may logically follow; but self-awareness is where the process begins.

To learn more download my white paper, 11 Components of a Best-in-Class 360-Degree Assessment.

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