The Role of Self-Awareness in Leadership

3 July 2020|Leadership, Resilience, Self-Awareness, Success

It takes a certain type of person to become a great leader. Many qualities make a strong leader – determination, humility, patience, integrity, empathy, courage, passion, clarity – I could go on. One could argue, though, that all those qualities tie in with a single crucial, all-encompassing trait: self-awareness. 

In a 2019 interview, D. Shivakumar (current president at Aditya Birla Group and former chairman and CEO at PepsiCo India) said that “being self-aware is the most difficult thing for a leader.” He continued with an example of a situation in which self-awareness is crucial, “… if a leader is articulate and keeps talking in a meeting, then he will be accused of being a poor listener. If a leader is a good listener and keeps listening, he might be accused of procrastinating. So being aware of how and when to use strengths is critical.”

In this article, I’ll elaborate on the importance of being self-aware, and I’ll offer some actionable tips for boosting self-awareness.

What Is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness is an important facet of emotional intelligence, which also includes empathy, motivation, self-regulation, and social skills. All the facets of emotional intelligence work together to provide us with the ability to perceive, understand, and regulate emotions – both in ourselves and in others.

By definition, self-awareness is the conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires. If a colleague earns a prestigious award and you catch yourself smiling, the act of smiling is a product of your character, but the act of catching yourself smiling is self-awareness – recognition of the fact that the success of others brings you joy. 

Essentially, self-awareness is a monitoring system for your mind’s metrics. 

How Self-Awareness Influences Leadership Efficacy

study of 72 top executives revealed that self-awareness is the strongest predictor of success. Here’s why:

It Reduces Stress-Responses

Part of being self-aware is recognizing what causes you stress. I know, for example, that working on a tight deadline stresses me out. When I’m stressed about my own projects, I’m not really motivated to lend a hand when a colleague needs help. Because I’m aware of the link between deadlines and my stress levels, I try to knock out tasks well ahead of their due dates so I’m better able to support my team. (Minimizing stress also makes me much more pleasant to be around.)

It Improves the Feedback Process (Giving and Receiving)

Giving constructive (but not critical) feedback is tough. Receiving feedback can be tougher.

Have you ever known someone who was really intelligent, but socially clueless? The type of person who cracks inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times, or who comes off as insensitive in sensitive situations? Okay, now imagine that person as a leader. It’s difficult to imagine, right? That’s because a great leader, one who is self-aware, understands the impact their words and actions have on others. When it comes to giving feedback, it’s less about what you say and more about how you say it. Self-awareness is a tool that can help you convey the most difficult message in the least painful way. If you’re in a position, for example, where you have to let an employee go, you’ll likely put a lot of thought into how you’ll do it. A leader who is self-aware understands the weight of his or her words and behavior, of course, but also understands how those words and behavior can be modified to make an unpleasant experience less unpleasant. They have the ability to pull themselves out of the situation, view it as an objective third-party, and constructively assess their behavior and its probable impact.

Self-awareness can also soften the blow when receiving feedback. If you’re self-aware, there’s a good chance you already know what’s coming, so it’s easier to hear. If you don’t, you can view the feedback as a means to enhance your self-awareness.

It Facilitates Growth

What’s the first step to growth? Acknowledging the problem. Years ago, I consulted with a client who had spent years with the same top-tier company watching his colleagues climb the ladder. As far as I could tell, he outperformed most of them. He was reliable, enthusiastic, and smart. After a thorough assessment of his history with the company, I couldn’t understand why he had plateaued. Eventually, he found the courage to ask his superior why he wasn’t advancing. It turns out, in his attempts to convey his eagerness and his passion for learning new things, he had implied that he wasn’t interested in committing to the company long-term – that he was keeping his eyes open for new opportunities. (In my client’s case, that was true – he had been planning to retrain for a while. But the self-awareness to realize how he was communicating his intentions would have saved him years of wondering what he was doing wrong and why he wasn’t advancing.)

It Aids in Goal-Setting

Self-awareness can put you in touch with not just what you want, but why you want it. It can help you recognize your goals, motivators, and obstacles. Perhaps you’d like to advance in your career. The desire to do so isn’t enough to get you there. You’ll need to assess your current situation, decide what position you’ll aim for, and then set out a plan for getting there – paying close attention to the barriers you may encounter along the way. That’s where self-awareness will set you apart from colleagues who share the same goal.

For more on goal-setting, check out The “How” and “Why” of Goal Setting.

Quick Tips for Boosting Self-Awareness

  • Ask trusted friends for an honest appraisal.
  • Schedule regular sit-downs with colleagues or superiors to discuss performance. Make an effort to respond well to all feedback.
  • Figure out what qualities you dislike in other people, then look for those qualities in yourself.
  • Journal. Write down your goals, motivations, and priorities. Keep your journal private, so you can be completely honest with yourself.
  • Track the outcomes of consistent or new habits and behaviors. Use your findings to improve.


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