The Self-Aware Leader

Effective leadership is rooted in understanding the leader you currently are as well as the leader you need to become for your unit to thrive, write Elizabeth A. Luckman, Nicholas C. Burbules, C. K. Gunsalus and Robert A. Easter.

August 7, 2019
 
 
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In previous articles, we’ve explored how leaders can develop productive work habits in their department cultures and how they can cultivate trust through improved communication. Here, we examine how effective leadership is rooted in understanding the leader you are and the leader you need to become for your department or unit to thrive. The journey all leaders travel includes finding the overlap between your personality and style, your strengths and weaknesses, the needs of your unit, and the new skills and capabilities you can cultivate. Self-awareness provides the hiking boots for this journey.

Why Self-Awareness Matters

Influencing other people starts with becoming aware of your own approaches, feelings, thoughts and abilities, so that you have an understanding of your reactions to the challenges you face. Self-aware leaders assess and develop familiarity with their strengths and how to deploy them to motivate and inspire those in their unit. They also know their weaknesses: their habits and blind spots, when they should pause before saying or doing something, things they should not try to do, when to surround themselves with complementary perspectives and approaches, and where to focus personal improvement efforts.

Leaders that develop such self-awareness also understand their own values and goals and how they are attuned to the purpose and mission of their work. They reflect carefully on why they accept leadership positions and have some clear ideas about what they want to accomplish in such roles. There is a line here between recognizing at some base level who you are and assuming that as an unchangeable given. Big changes are difficult for adults, and perhaps even more difficult for high-achieving adults, but taking on a leadership role requires the cultivation of some new skills and dispositions. It is dangerous and self-defeating to say, “But this is just who I am.”

Consider a scenario where you have been offered the leadership of an academic unit and have to determine how this choice will influence your career and work goals. Certainly it will interfere with your own scholarly priorities and productivity. Is it worth it? How will it change you as a person? Will you come to regret the choice or even resent it?

If you know that being a leader is temporary and view it merely part of your service obligations -- your turn to give back to a unit in which you’re been a member -- that is one way to approach the role. Another is if you see it as a means for stretching in new dimensions, achieving a specific goal or allowing you to make a difference in some important way. Or perhaps you perceive it as providing some leadership responsibilities and opportunities that you seek to take on, with an eye toward future advancement. An awareness of how a leadership role fits in with your own career goals makes it more likely that you will find it satisfying.

A key element of leadership is monitoring how your statements and actions “land” on other people. Self-aware leaders are able to understand how they affect those around them and know to seek guidance or advice to improve outcomes. They can infer from others’ reactions whether and how their messages are being received. If, on top of that, they can cultivate a deeper sense of empathy -- to understand the feelings of others -- so much the better.

Self-awareness is particularly important for leaders because once in a leadership position, you have positional power. Even longtime colleagues will see and react to you differently when you evaluate (or have input in evaluating) them, when you are responding favorably or unfavorably to their requests, or when you have the power to discipline them. As a colleague or peer, what you say and do may be interpreted in one way; as a leader, the same words or behavior may be interpreted differently.

What you do will always -- at least at some level -- be perceived as an exercise of the role and status of your position. A personal opinion, a joke or a casual observation about someone’s attire can all be read differently when the unit head says it -- it’s not just you being you, it’s your role of authority. Never underestimate how much this will lead to people speculating about, trying to intuit or attributing to you motives that may or may not be accurate.

Transparency, communication and a degree of humility and respect for others are essential qualities if you want others to work with you in your new position of leadership. It helps immeasurably if you are attuned to the environment and people around you -- attending to and being aware of how you are influencing others and how they are influencing you.

Ultimately, leaders who are self-aware bring authenticity to their role. Authenticity undergirds trust between the leader and members of the unit and thus improves group interaction and performance. Authenticity comes from behaving in line with your values and doing as you say you will do. By demonstrating behavioral integrity, you encourage those around you to be more open and honest in return.

How to Practice Self-Awareness

Becoming more self-aware requires practice. Despite what you might think, self-awareness is not a solo endeavor; it requires other people. We have found that small behavioral changes, like those listed below, can lead to greater self-awareness over time.

Observe yourself. Start to craft a vision of yourself that is based on your own observation of your behaviors and emotions, as well as how others say they perceive them. Throughout the day, strive to be aware of and consider your thoughts and reactions to different events. Think about how what you do and say might appear to others. One way to do this is to record yourself. Are there any events you attend that are videotaped or recorded that you can review for a quick reality check of the body language and reactions of others to your comments or conduct?

Observing yourself includes tracking other elements as well. Plan and monitor how you spend your time during the day. Are you working as productively as you think you are? What do you do with the hours of the day? Do you allocate tasks to times that match your energy levels? Do you build in time for personal needs, family and friendships? If you are not aware of your goals and purpose, it is far too easy to focus on immediate demands and tasks that are strategically unimportant. Tracking, even loosely, how you spend your time can alert you to potential issues before they become problems.

Ask others and listen. You can learn a lot about yourself from how other people interact with you. Do people seek you out? Do they shut down when they talk to you? Do they turn away or toward you? Do they seem defensive? Are they generally pleasant? Patterns in the behaviors of others can alert us to those in our own. In addition to asking for formal feedback -- and listening to it -- you can simply observe how other people react.

It is also important to cultivate relations with peers and mentors, especially those who are in or have held similar roles -- and those with whom you can frankly discuss what is working and what is not. Every leader needs “critical friends” -- colleagues who will be confidentially honest with us. Our own self-awareness is supported by listening -- actively listening -- to others to gather as much information as possible.

Reflect and prioritize potential change. Reflecting on your observations of yourself and how others respond to you will sometimes indicate areas where you want to change or improve. Do you want to be more caring? More decisive? Better organized? More confident? Less aggressive? How will you manifest these in your actions, statements and ways of dealing with others? Spend some time to create an intentional strategy for making changes and for monitoring how those changes affect your interactions with others. Seek out resources, texts or professional development opportunities to help cultivate such changes.

If you want to know more about this topic, consider reading about self-awareness, emotional intelligence and effective listening from the Leadership Collection, a curated collection of resources on topics important to leaders that the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, which several of us are affiliated with, has developed. We are also offering a workshop on academic leadership in Chicago in September.

In addition, in other columns, we have discussed a tool for building more healthy unit cultures, the Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool. You can also use it to strengthen your self-awareness and well as that of other members of the unit. If you are willing to offer, hear and engage points of view that might be uncomfortable to you, then others will be more likely to as well.

In conclusion, self-awareness is fundamental to strong leadership. It can help highlight potential issues before they become serious problems and help indicate directions for self-improvement. Most of all, it is the key to personal growth. It demonstrates openness and thoughtfulness, which can help you earn trust and support, and models an approach that leads to a more vibrant academic unit where differences can lead to strength, not divisiveness.

All leaders need to continue growing and changing: self-awareness allows you to guide that change and monitor how you affect other people. In short, cultivating self-awareness will benefit your personal leadership journey and improve your relations with those around you.

Bio

Elizabeth A. Luckman is the lead postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics (NCPRE) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Nicholas C. Burbules is the Gutgsell Professor in the department of educational policy, organization and leadership at the university. C. K. Gunsalus is the director of NCPRE, professor emerita of business and research professor at the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory at the university, and Robert A. Easter is president emeritus and dean emeritus of agriculture, consumer and environmental sciences.

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