10 Steps to Develop Self-Awareness – the Most Critical Leadership Competency

self-awarenessSelf-awareness is the cornerstone to strong leadership. If you are a leader, you must be aware of where you fall short and when you are off track if you are to close the gap between where you are and where your organization needs you to be. This is why blind spots are the enemy of leadership. If you don’t know what you don’t know, how do you close the competency gap?

Building self- awareness is the path to developing emotional intelligence and stronger leadership skills. Because you cannot fix a problem or deficiency you are unaware of, you have to be proactive about discovering your blindness. This takes some planning and includes a mixture of self-reflection and gathering feedback that is unbiased and honest in an ongoing and consistent manner.

The Rationale for Regular Assessments

There are many ways to unveil your blind spots and develop self-awareness. The thing to remember is that this will not be a do-it-once-and-done exercise. Because you will change along the way, and so will your environment, you want to ensure you create some sort of consistent way to assess yourself as a leader. Here are three reasons why it is important to make gaining self-awareness an ongoing priority:

You Will Grow
Blinds spots come and go and change based on context. As you grow in your career, organization, and leadership responsibilities, your role will change and so will your blind spots. The skills and traits you need to succeed will also shift along the way.

Context Is Everything
Strengths and weaknesses are not static. They work more like a continuum, and are very much based on context. Being a creative, imaginative thinker is a strength when you work in marketing. The same traits would be disastrous for a surgeon when in the operating room. There is no good/bad, right/wrong, or win/lose about who you are. The key is to learn when certain traits work for you and when they hold you back.

Your Environment Will Change
In a constantly changing, VUCA world, it is important to not only understand your inherent tendencies, but also to be self-aware of how you change, or fail to change, as the system around you shifts. You have to learn what competencies and characteristics are needed in the new context and how you are going to embrace them. This takes careful reflection and discernment.

Gaining an Honest and Complete Picture of Your Leadership

In order to wrap your mind and efforts around getting an honest and clear picture of who you are and how you show up at work, you’ll need not only your own time to self-reflect, but also feedback from those you work with. The problem is, leaders and those with power often have a difficult time gaining an honest pulse of how they are doing. The people who work for and with them may want to please them and may not want to risk any perceived blowback from telling it like it is. This presents a huge dilemma to leaders who want the honest truth about where they need to develop.

The first step is to talk about the value of feedback openly on your team, and cultivate a culture of feedback by creating a shared understanding on your team, designing feedback systems with your team, training those you work with to deliver feedback with both candor and compassion, and emphasizing the importance of receiving feedback with appreciation. When you integrate feedback into the fabric of your team, there is a shared understanding that the intention of constructive feedback is to learn, grow, and develop personally and professionally – as individuals and as a team.

As Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and bestselling author said, “Withholding feedback is choosing comfort over growth. Staying silent deprives people of the opportunity to learn. If you’re worried about hurting their feelings, it’s a sign that you haven’t earned their trust. In healthy relationships, honesty is an expression of care.” When you have trust and psychological safety on your team and frame the process of sharing feedback in this way, it opens up the channels more freely.

These 10 tips are meant to help you gain a more complete picture of who you are and how you are perceived. The first seven tips focus on getting feedback from others, the last three are about learning to self-reflect in order to gain self-awareness. With the right tone set about the importance of feedback and the right framework for reflection, you can develop a consistent rhythm to get feedback from within and from those around you. 

1. Build a Personal Board of Directors

personal board of directors is a group of individuals you can trust to tell it to you like it is. These are people who can help you make sound
 decisions and expand your perspective 
by meeting with you – not necessarily together – on a regular basis to provide
 candid feedback, unveil blind spots, advocate for you, and challenge you. Certainly, an executive coach 
can fulfill part of the role here, but it is
 helpful to have at least a few others you
 can count on, too.

Make sure it is a diverse group of people in your life that will both support and challenge you by offering candid feedback. This is a key point, as you don’t want to include those who will say things just 
to make you feel good; you want to choose people you know will be honest with you, even when it means telling you something you don’t want to hear (but need to hear it!).

2. Practice Curiosity (an Antidote to Defensiveness)

If you get defensive when others give you feedback, no one will ever give you honest feedback again. If your default is to contract when you hear something you don’t agree with or don’t like, you may have a tendency to get defensive.

Work on developing a new default reaction that exudes openness, interest, and appreciation for the feedback you receive – whatever that feedback may be. Someone may share something with you that is spot on, which could lead to a transformative shift in how you lead, if you are open to receiving it. Even when you feel a piece of feedback is off base, there is something to learn. Even if only 10% of what was shared is valid, you can learn something from that 10%. So be open and curious about what it is you can learn… And grateful they were willing to share it.

3. Initiate a 360-Degree Feedback Process 

360-degree feedback processes are designed to gather anonymous feedback from the people who work closest to a leader, in the spirit of learning and development.

In the 360-degree process I lead, I interview stakeholders, colleagues, direct reports, peers, and partners to get to the essence of how the leader I am coaching operates and is perceived in the workplace. This supports us in developing self-awareness and gaining a full picture of their strengths, development needs, and blind spots. I use this feedback to generate a summary report, which we use in our coaching to design a development plan. There are many other different kinds of 360s that focus on different aspects of leadership.

4. Request Feedback

If you don’t have access to a 360, you can keep it simple and just ask for feedback. Send a quick email to five or 10 people whom you trust to give you their candid perspective on what you do well and what you need to work on.

5. Leadership or Personality Profiles

There are hundreds of assessment tools and leadership profiles that can help leaders build self-awareness and gain insight into their natural tendencies, aptitudes, and preferences. I am certified in the Workplace Big Five profile, which reveals a leader’s five super traits and 23 subtraits and has profound influence on helping people optimize their energy, maximize their engagement, and boost performance overall. I am also certified to use an emotional intelligence assessment, DISC, and a few others, which you can read about here.

6. Join a Mastermind

You may consider joining a mastermind or leadership group, which may serve as something similar to your personal board of directors, depending on the group’s mission, dynamics, and structure. Mastermind groups are a great way to build connections with those who are in similar roles as you, but who are external to your organization and therefore objective. Check out the Wide Lens Leadership Collective that I run, and reach out if you are interested in joining the next cohort.

7. Hire a Coach

When no one else will tell it to you like it is, hire someone that will. A strong executive coach is not there to please you, but rather to challenge you, share direct feedback, build self-awareness, and shine a light on things that may not be obvious to you to help you see a different perspective. You can learn about my executive coaching services here.

8. Reflect Routinely 

There are several ways to develop self-awareness on your own. I recommend daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual reflections. This does not need to be extensive, but it should be consistent. For example, one reflection routine could look like the following:

Daily – 1 Minute: Check in with yourself at the beginning of each day and set an intention for how you want to be. Check in with yourself at the end of each day to see how you measure yourself according to your intention and decide what you want to do differently tomorrow.

Weekly – 5 Minutes: Spend five minutes at the end of each week, and ask yourself:

  • What wins or accomplishments can I celebrate?
  • What challenges did I face and how did I manage them? What could I have done differently or better?
  • What do I want to focus on next week?

Monthly – 30 minutes: Spend a half hour each month to gauge where you are on a larger set of development goals you have. Ask yourself:

  • Where am I in relation to each of my goals? Get curious about anywhere you may be falling behind.
  • What conflicts arose this month, and how did I handle them? What could I have done better?
  • What am I sick and tired of?
  • What am I avoiding?
  • What did I learn that was valuable this month?
  • What do I need to do or focus on in order to develop myself in the next month?
  • How can I get the honest feedback I need to develop my self-awareness next month?

Quarterly – 1 Hour:  Once a quarter take a quiet hour to reflect on where you are and where you want to be. Ask yourself:

  • Where am I in relation to each of my goals?
  • What do I need to develop in order to reach my goals?
  • How can I take a more proactive approach in my personal and professional development? What or who do I need to help me with this?
  • What am I challenged by or tired of, and how am I responsible in some ways for creating the conditions for this challenge?
  • What do I need to focus on moving forward?

Annually – A Day or Weekend: At least once a year, get away from it all for a day or a weekend to focus on yourself. Sit with these questions:

  • Am I living in in alignment with my core values? My mission in life? My purpose?
  • Where am I on the path to becoming the leader I want to be? If off track, how can I get back on track?
  • Where am I stuck?
  • What kind of leader have I been in the last year, and what kind of leader do I want to be? What is the delta and what are some things I can do to close the gap?
  • How can I get into a better, more consistent rhythm of garnering honest feedback from those around me?
  • What do I need to invest in – financially, energetically, time – in order to reach my potential?
  • What do I need to invest in – financially, energetically, time – in order to achieve what matters most to me?

9. Determine Your Reset Strategies

Everyone needs to have a way to recharge when their battery is low. However, going for a jog and cooking a healthy meal may recharge one person and that very same activity may deplete another.

Learning what works best for you to recharge and settle your nervous system – particularly during stress and VUCA times – is a type of self-awareness that is essential for leaders. You cannot be a strong leader when you are chronically stressed and your tank is empty. If you don’t already know what works well to fuel your tank, experiment to find out what does. You can start with activities like practicing yoga, mindfulness meditation, jogging, a trip to the beach, hanging out with children or animals, volunteering, napping, going for a hike in nature, laying in a hammock, doing a puzzle, reading a book, getting a massage, or catching up with a friend. Find out which activities work for you, and then make sure they are in your calendar.

10. Pay Attention

Pay attention to what triggers you so you can proactively set up some guardrails to avoid falling into your traps and patterns. Pay attention to when you feel most energized and do more of those things. Pay attention to what exhausts you and try to delegate or minimize those aspects of your work. Pay attention to the people and contexts you work best in. Pay attention to your biases so you can minimize how they interfere with your work. Pay attention to your assumptions and when you are holding onto your sense of right and wrong too tightly. Pay attention to the power dynamics in the room so you use your own power in the most intentional way. Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention – and you will gain self-awareness.

Bottom Line

The process of radical inquiry that I am describing here calls on you to be humble, open to being wrong (even enthusiastic about it!), and step out of the echo chambers that can be comfortable. The unwillingness of leaders to deepen their self-awareness and do this kind of work is often what complicates and sabotages organizations.

What I have been describing is a mindset of being able and willing to look at yourself more objectivity, be open to your shortcomings, and be interested in closing the gaps on where you are and 1) where your organization needs you to be and 2) where you want to be.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.