Self-Awareness Defines Great Leaders, But It Doesn’t Happen On Its Own

I get such a thrill from seeing talented people grow in their careers. And being in a fast-growing industry, I’ve had a front-row seat in seeing people develop. So how do I know when someone is ready for stepping into a more senior leadership role, an executive role?


Take Julie for example. She was a great functional head and consistently delivered excellent results on time. But, she didn’t have a sense of what was working in her leadership style and what was holding her back – while she had a fantastic understanding of her role, she didn’t inspire confidence when she spoke across functions, and her territorial approach put people off.

Self-awareness – an awareness of one’s own personality or individuality – is not always easy to develop, but it is critical. Without a certain level of self-awareness in the executive world, you aren’t going to get very far. As an executive, you need to be able to gather feedback, analyze yourself, self-coach and be adjusting and improving your leadership style every day.

How Self-Awareness Unlocks Next-Level Leadership

Self-awareness is the main building block of leadership development and comes with a whole bag of benefits:

Ability to play to your strengths and stay clear or get support for those areas you find difficult

If you know you are good at understanding complex technical problems but terrible at organizing team events, you won’t volunteer to host the strategic meet-up (or you find a skilled events planner in your team to delegate to). Instead, you’ll use your time better to support the tech team in troubleshooting their integration strategy.

Helps in getting along with others

When you understand yourself, it’s typically in the context of another – for example, “I am more action-oriented, I act faster than my colleagues” or “I don’t think as deeply as Vivienne.” Understanding the self brings a richer appreciation for the range of talents and skills that others bring to the table.

Understanding intuitively that people are different from you – in thinking styles, motivations and needs for example – is an asset when it comes to building teams and working with colleagues.

Allows leaders to sustain at their peak performance

Leaders need to understand how to get the best out of themselves.

For example, when a leader recognizes themselves as an introvert, they can look after their needs better by giving themselves periods of alone time, and hence recharge themselves to peak performance

Building Self Awareness at your Organization

A question I ask to gauge for self-awareness is:

What are your leadership development areas? If the leader is focused on work product or stuck without a response, it may indicate that they haven’t had the opportunity to really look at themselves deeply.

The good news is that organizations and leaders can have a big impact on developing self-awareness. It doesn’t have to “come over time.” There are active ways to jump ahead and accelerate the self-awareness journey.

One of the most effective ways I’ve seen leaders develop self-awareness is through extended 6-9 month leadership programs that encourage reflection and deep dive into leadership behaviors. Going through a self-assessment like MBTI or DISC together with a group can be very powerful. Alternatively, an intensive individual coaching journey can also target self-awareness development. If your leaders describe the program as ‘transformative,’ then you know they’ve shifted.

Additionally, managers play an important role in helping their teams build self-awareness.

Giving positive and developmental leadership feedback (not just performance feedback) is a necessary foundation for developing self-awareness. Going beyond that, it’s key that the manager builds a culture of feedback and a safe environment so that team members feel comfortable having coaching conversations about their leadership styles with their supervisors and colleagues.

Providing safe spaces and opportunities for growing leaders to discuss themselves, their motivations, and their personal challenges lays the foundation for leadership self-awareness.

Going back to Julie, she was able to deep dive on herself through a leadership program, and over the course of a year, made significant progress in building her self-awareness. This put her into a strong position for a cross-functional role that she was absolutely ready for due to the hard work she put into her self-awareness. Julie now has more confidence and is able to manage herself more effectively when conflicts arise.  She recently got promoted and is an increasingly valuable member of her organization, thanks in large part to her commitment to increasing her self-awareness.