The Self-Aware Leader: Take an Inside-Outside Approach

April 28, 2022 Diana Johnson Urbina


Can someone be a great leader and not be self-aware?

I believe all great leaders are self-aware. If you don’t know how your behaviors affect others, it’s difficult to lead successfully. Furthermore, leaders who aren’t self-aware can cause significant damage. The news is filled with reports about highly visible executives (I hesitate to call them leaders) who lack self-awareness and the damage they cause to their people and their companies. Their stories have unhappy endings.

The Two Parts of Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is foundational to inspiring leadership. It has two parts. The first part is being able to observe your own feelings and thoughts and their relationship. It’s challenging to do and requires observation and patience. The second part is being aware of how you affect others and how they perceive you. Observing your thoughts is an internal knowing. Being aware of your impact on others is an external knowing.

If you want to be an inspiring leader, you must have some degree of mastery over both parts of self-awareness. You need to know what’s important to you, why it’s important, what triggers you, and what your values are. When you have answers for these elements, you will be able to intentionally influence people—a key requirement of leadership.

Internal Knowing

  • Gain internal knowing by expanding your feelings vocabulary. To gain a better understanding of your internal self-awareness, a best practice is to develop an extensive feelings vocabulary—descriptive words for emotions that help you accurately identify what you are feeling and why. It helps you move aware from vague explanations of “I am upset” to “I am disappointed and discouraged.” If you have difficulty describing what you are feeling, you may have a limited understanding of your emotions and difficulty taking appropriate action as a result. For some leaders who are less in touch with their emotions, this will require a lot of intentional practice.

Being able to identify an emotion is powerful. When you can describe it, you can name it, tame it (by understanding what actions might help minimize or address the feeling), and ideally reframe it—because it now feels manageable.

One way we help our coaching clients is to provide a vocabulary sheet for them to refer to a set number of times throughout the day to identify what they’re feeling in the moment. There’s a big difference, for example, between frustrated and disappointed, between stressed and panicking, and between content and proud. The vocabulary sheet helps the person become more self-aware and teaches them how to accurately describe their emotions and take appropriate action.

  • Gain internal knowing through rightsizing emotions. Rightsizing emotions is another one of my favorite strategies. It’s best described through an example most can relate to: Someone cuts you off in traffic and you become enraged. You ask yourself if the intensity of your emotion is appropriate to what just happened and if your emotion is helpful. In this situation, your emotion is doing nothing but giving you high blood pressure. It’s not changing anything in the world. The best thing to do is to rightsize your rage—decrease it to a mild frustration—and let the anger go because it’s not serving you.

When you feel an intense emotion, first think, “Why does this feel so intense for me?” Then, “Is this intensity going to create a helpful outcome?” If the answer is yes, think about the outcome you want. If the answer is no, think about a more appropriate emotion or one that would be more helpful in helping you achieve your desired outcome.

Variations of this scenario happen at work all the time. Someone hurts you and you feel righteous anger for a while—maybe days or even weeks. Once you learn to look at the intensity of your emotion and determine the outcome you want, you can move past the emotion. The next step would be to either move on or address the issue—ideally, with the person who caused the hurt.

External Knowing

  • Gain external knowing through a 360 assessment. One of the best ways to become more self-aware is to learn what people truly think about you. Most leaders don’t take the time to get feedback. They assume they know what would be said—and it’s surprising how often they are off track.

A multi-rater 360 is a fantastic way to improve self-awareness. It allows people to provide anonymous feedback, which increases accuracy. The feedback is gathered in a consistent manner and grouped together so it is nearly impossible for you, the leader, to identify who gave what rating. The pooling of perceptions can also help you be more detached from the results, allowing you to have a clear picture of how you are perceived and what you might want to do about it.

  • Gain external knowing through interviews. Have an objective third party act as a surrogate multi-rater. You might choose an executive coach who does not work in your organization. They interview your key stakeholders and keep all answers confidential. Then they summarize the answers to protect anonymity and share with you what they find.

Don’t assume you know what they’re going to discover. Even though the information people share through this confidential approach is often very surprising, leaders usually appreciate being informed than being kept in the dark.

The Unexpected Rewards of Becoming More Self-Aware

The rewards of becoming more self-aware are significant. When you are aware of your feelings, you can rightsize them. You can pivot easily. You can work better with difficult people. When you know the affect you have on others and how they perceive you, you can entertain different perspectives of a situation. You can be an inspiring leader. You are in a place of choice.

Being self-aware brings tremendous freedom. And that makes you a better human and a better leader.


About the Author

Diana Johnson Urbina

Diana Johnson Urbina is Head of Coaching Services at Blanchard®. She has more than 22 years of experience executing strategic and tactical plans in organizational development and capability improvements. She specializes in coaching executives through change, with a focus on team dynamics and business performance.

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