Leadership begins with self-leadership

Knowing who you are as a leader, what’s important to you and how you can make the best contribution using your inherent talents, skills and strengths in the most effective way possible. It also means you know when you need to recruit expertise, experience or support from others to get the work done well. Through self-leadership, you understand your triggers and how to manage your response in those moments, to achieve effective outcomes for the situation. You learn to stand outside of your experience and see yourself through the eyes of another so that you can direct your behaviour and choose where to focus your attention.

Self-leadership is a key driver of high performance for you and the people you lead.… if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far. – Daniel Goleman

How’s your self-leadership?  How would you experience your leadership if you were on the receiving end?

If self-awareness is a key driver of performance (and it is), we’re in trouble, because various research suggests that it is in short supply.  For example, a study conducted by Hay Group Research found that while women in executive-level management positions show more self-awareness than men in the same positions, the overall percentages were just 19% for female leaders and only 4% for male leaders.

The paradox is that we often aren’t aware of our lack of self-awareness. 

Research by Tasha Eurich, organisational psychologist and author of the book Insight suggests that 95% of people believe that they are self-aware, but only about 10-15% really are.

Why the gap?

There are various barriers, including our brain’s capacity to process information. Internally, there are many things going on that we aren’t consciously aware of and externally, society encourages us to focus on ourselves more and more but see ourselves less objectively and clearly. As a consequence, we are becoming more self-absorbed but less self-aware.

Eurich and her colleagues suggest we need two types of self-awareness to see ourselves clearly. The first is ‘internal self-awareness’ – an inward understanding of who we are, what makes us tick and our personality.  Equally important is ‘external self-awareness’ – an appreciation and understanding of how other people see us. The two types of self-awareness are not related, so just because you see yourself clearly, you may not know how other people see me, and vice versa.

People who do see themselves clearly – both internally and externally – are better performers. They’re more promotable, better communicators and better influencers. They also have stronger relationships which all together influences the companies they work for. Korn/Ferry International studied the stock performance of 486 publicly traded companies and found that employees with higher levels of self-awareness was a differentiating factor between companies with strong financial performance and poorly performing companies.

They are also better leaders. A study by the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations (2010) found self-awareness to be the strongest predictor of overall leader success.


They found that awareness of their weaknesses enabled executives to work with others who had differing strengths to them, made them more easily accept the possibility that someone else may have better ideas or abilities than their own and therefore benefit from that.  The study also found that a lack of self-awareness in leaders can potentially alienate others, through misunderstanding the impact of their actions on them.

Too much of a good thing?

Accurate self-awareness supports progress and performance, but if you are overly self-conscious and analyse yourself too much, it can get in the way. If you are over-estimating your performance or not paying attention to feedback from others, you may need to get a reality check. But, if you are under-estimating your capacity or are too focused on how others see you, rather than what matters to you, you may need to take time out to consider what you care about, what your values are. What are the things that are going to make you happy? What do you do really well that perhaps you haven’t been able to acknowledge?

“Self-aware leaders are attuned to their inner signals. They recognise, for instance, how their feelings affect themselves and their performance. If a person is oblivious to his own feelings, he will also be tuned out to how others feel.” (Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, p.37)

Overall, senior-level executives tend to be less self-aware than other levels of leadership when considering things like empathy, communication skills, emotional intelligence and coaching ability. Unfortunately, the environment for leaders makes it easy to lose touch with reality, as people become less willing to put tough truths on the table.

So if you’re a leader, what can you do to actively work on your self-awareness?

If you lack clarity about who you are, how you fit into the world and/or you’re not feeling happy in the life that you’ve created for yourself, you may need to develop your internal self-awareness.

Taking time to consider your values, your priorities and how they align with the way you are currently living and leading can help with this. You may find my Leadership Agenda blog useful for this too.

Signals that indicate a need for external self-awareness could be any time things don’t go quite the way you thought they should or would. These can be good opportunities to ask yourself why they didn’t go as expected and get some feedback from the people who know you best.

The research by Eurich found that people who didn’t start out as self-aware were able to develop the skill in powerful ways in their lives. They did this not by listening to feedback from everyone around them, but by using a small, core group to get feedback on some of their behaviours and see them for what they are.  These people served as critical friends to help them develop external self-awareness and create more alignment in their leadership of self and others.

Who are your critical friends? Think about who you would ask to play this important role in your leadership development journey and talk with them about their involvement.

Leadership begins with self-leadership and self-leadership begins with self-awareness. Without it we limit ourselves, the people we lead and the possibility and progress we can create.

Want some help developing your self-awareness?
Click here for information on Paige’s coaching programs.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders elevate their impact to lead teams who deliver results and create a culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.