Self-Awareness is the "meta-skill of the 21st Century" - Dr. Tasha Eurich
So few leaders really understand themselves or the impact they have on others. This book is a step towards fixing that.
Who are you?
You're not your thoughts, because you think that.
You're not what you have.
And you can't be your feelings, because otherwise who is the you that feels them?
You are not what you do.
You are not even who you love, or who loves you.
There has to be something underneath all that.
- Caroline Mchugh
I walked into my boss’ office, ready for our first meeting. The colonel was a senior leader in our division and was going to be a key person in my career progression. The fact that this was my first time in a combat zone made this initial counseling seem a lot more serious than ones I’d had in the past.
Typically these initial meetings centered on getting to know the newly-arrived officer, communicating expectations, and identifying professional-development needs. I quickly learned that wasn’t how this was going to go.
The colonel sat behind his large desk as I stood there, waiting for him to finish up an email he was working on. When he finally finished a couple of awkward minutes later, he offered me a seat. I sat down in the low seat in front of his desk and could only feel minimized by the fact that his seat was significantly higher than mine. “Power trip?” I thought to myself.
I am used to leaders asking a few get-to-know-you questions during these initial encounters, but Colonel Mike wasn’t really interested in that. He gave me a quick overview of the challenges in the operations section and how my new duties would fit in to help solve them. The whole time he kept looking over my shoulder, seldom making eye contact. I thought that was strange until I realized that there was a large television screen behind me playing one of the 24-hour news channels.
The meeting finished up in a few minutes and I left with some marginally useful guidance and the feeling that my new boss couldn’t care less about me.
Leadership is people centric. Leaders are judged by how they relate to, motivate, inspire, direct, manage, and develop other people. A leader’s strength in relating to other people depends a great deal on their relationship with their inner self. Understanding who we are, how our feelings and emotions affect our behavior and decision-making helps us to understand and relate to other people.
There are two facets of self-awareness: internal and external. Internal self-awareness is how we see and understand ourselves: our emotions, values, goals, aspirations, how we fit in, and our strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. External self-awareness is how well we understand how others perceive us. Leaders must develop both kinds of awareness.
Understanding ourselves helps us know our limitations and where there may be areas to improve. This understanding helps us focus our self-development efforts, where to play to our strengths, and where we might need to outsource things that we are not great at. It helps us understand the sometimes-hidden biases that play such a large role in our decision-making. It helps us understand our emotions, and what triggers them. Seeing ourselves clearly helps us examine and update our biases, assumptions, and prejudices so we can see how they impact our ability to think clearly and lead others.
External self-awareness is different. Developing insight into how others perceive us is important if we want to lead or influence them. Without an understanding what others think of us, or how they react to our leadership we are unlikely to build trust, a necessary component of leading people and building effective teams. I can’t really talk about Colonel Mike’s internal self-awareness, but his external SA didn’t seem to be intact.
Internal and external self-awareness do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many people have high internal self-awareness, and low external self-awareness. Others have it the other way around. The skills, attitudes, and approaches to developing both kinds of self-awareness are quite different, and even activate different parts of the brain.
Understanding others’ levels of awareness is difficult. Colonel Mike may have been a very self-aware leader, although his actions suggest a lack of external self-awareness. If he was truly aware of how he was perceived and did nothing to change it, then he was knowingly being a jackass. I’d like to think he just had a blind spot and lacked the awareness of how he was perceived by others.
Becoming a genuinely self-aware leader requires us to continuously work on both components. Internally we must recognize and understand what we want, what assumptions we habitually use, where our biases, beliefs, and worldview come from, and how each of these impacts how we take in new information and make decisions. We need to understand our values, and why those are important to us. We need to understand how we process information and emotions, and the habits that drive our behavior. Externally we need to understand how we affect others, and how they respond to our actions and words.
That’s a lot of stuff to keep track of!
Notice I wrote “continuously work on.” Being self-aware isn’t a snapshot of who you are, it is a journey. We all change over time. We pick up new habits and abandon old ones. Sometimes that’s a good thing as in when you give up smoking. Other times it’s less beneficial as when we give up healthy eating habits or working out. We change our minds about things. We learn and grow, and this changes us. So we need to continuously check in with ourselves.
How often think about yourself? I don't mean thinking about what the doctor told you about your cholesterol, or the new outfit you just picked out, or your upcoming vacation. I mean truly reflecting on who you are. How much valuable time do you spend getting to know you? Most of us don’t think about ourselves in a reflective way very often, usually because, “I already know me. I am very self-aware. After all I’ve lived with me my whole life.” And most of us are wrong.
Organizational psychologist Dr. Tosha Eurich posits that 95% of people believe that they are self-aware. Her research revealed that only 10-15% of us are truly self-aware, which means that a vast majority of people are fooling themselves most of the time.
Interestingly the people that Dr. Eurich found in that minority of self-aware people did not fit into any pattern of demographics. Self-awareness is independent of industry, profession, age, gender, country of origin, or race.