“Know thyself.” – Socrates
Leaders spend a lot of time trying to understand a lot of different things. They spend countless hours trying to grasp the economic drivers of their industries and how their business might take advantage of its environment. They spend vast amounts of time and energy trying to understand the people who work with and for them and how they can create a space for them to flourish. They lay awake at night thinking about their competitors and what they might be (or might not be) doing.
Yet, for all those attempts at understanding, too many leaders fail to do one of the most important things a leader can do – understand themselves. For all the books & papers & speeches & classes about leadership, and all the attributes & behaviors that are credited to leadership, simple observation seems to tell me that very few things can undermine a leader’s ability to lead like a lack of self-awareness.
Some of the worst situations we’ve helped people deal with have come about because leaders were completely unaware of (and thus, didn’t stop) some kind of destructive behavior on their part. Nothing kills employee morale & engagement like having the boss tell them one thing and do something else, or fail to live the organization’s supposed core values. No leader can ever expect better behavior from the staff than they show themselves.
So what can you do? You could come up with a hundred ideas, but here’s a few that stick out in my mind based on some recent experience:
1) Know your strengths. Think about the things you are really good at, where you bring a lot of value to your organization. Make a list. Now look at the list and realize that if it’s not on the list, you probably should do as little of it as possible. And be honest – none of us is good at everything. As much as you might like to think differently, the reality is that you almost certainly don’t have 25 strengths.
2) Have some accountability. Has anyone in your organization ever told you when you behaved poorly? Or when you didn’t handle a situation well? Or that they’ve disagreed with something you’ve done? If not, you’re in trouble. Part of your job as leader is to create a culture where people can provide you with constructive feedback. Sometimes it’s as simple as letting people know it’s OK to challenge you. At the very least, explicitly communicate to a handful of people (your management team if you have one) that you expect them to confront you if your behavior is detrimental to the team.
3) Develop a personal vision. You’re the President of your company – so what? What does that mean? What should your role be? What kinds of things should you be heavily involved in? What kinds of things should you keep your hands off of? A leader who has to poke their nose into everything doesn’t create a lot of positive energy in any organization.
You may think you have too many external things to think about to spend time on self-reflection. As the leader, you have too many external things to think about not to spend time on self-reflection. If you don’t understand you, how can you understand the rest of the world?