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Dan's Insights and Inspirations for Empowered Leadership

Self Awareness Is Rare. But Here's Why It's Critical To Authentic Leadership.

Self-awareness is like trying to read the label of a bottle from inside the bottle. You’re so close to yourself, you can’t fully perceive yourself. 

For years, I never fully understood that. I thought I understood what others felt when they were around me. I’m a six-foot-four-inch, two-hundred and-fifty-pound Black man. I’ve been tall my whole life—I’ve also been black my whole life. I'm by far the biggest, darkest person in 99% of the rooms I walk into. But it wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized how intimidating it can feel for people to stand next to me. 

I was in a meeting with a former NFL player. We were preparing to speak at the same event, and he was sitting across the table from me. At six-foot-six, he easily weighed fifty pounds more than me. When the meeting ended and we both stood up to leave, I felt something strange. It was a brief wave of anxiety with a hint of defensiveness. It was an unexpected sensation… and as I drove away, I reflected on the feeling. I later realized that feeling was the feeling of physical intimidation! 

That brief encounter made me wonder… “Is that how the people around me feel when they first meet me?”

That brief encounter made me wonder… “Is that how the people around me feel when they first meet me?” I went home and asked my wife (who is 5'4'' and white). To my surprise, she said yes! She also felt that way about men of other races on a regular basis. It was a bias she had to actively fight against.

Now, I wish the world was a place where everybody saw you for who you are on the inside. I wish you didn't need to understand the assumptions people make about you. Whether you’re six-foot-four and black or five-foot-two and white, I wish people understood your appearance as a mere part of the whole. But we don’t live in that world yet. 

People will make unfair judgments based on what you wear, how you talk, and how you carry yourself. As a leader, here's what you can do about it: increase your self-awareness.

Self-Aware Leaders Are Better Leaders

Studies show that leaders who are self-aware are far more effective, and gain far more enjoyment from their work than their less self-aware colleagues. Self-awareness brings us greater levels of clarity, confidence, and creativity. Our decisions are more sound, and our relationships are stronger. We become better workers and lead more satisfied employees. Simply becoming more self-aware can accomplish a lot! 

As a leadership coach and executive director of Branches Worldwide, I've had the opportunity to observe some incredibly self-aware leaders. I'll tell you now… self-awareness isn't easy, but it’s certainly impressive.

In my book, Authentic Leadership, I describe the difference between external self-awareness and internal self-awareness. Below is a helpful grid created by Dr.Tasha Eurich that describes the contrast between internal and external self-awareness.

the four self-awareness archetypes
The Four Self-Awareness Archetypes

I'll address internal self-awareness in another article, but here, let's focus on why external self-awareness is a critical skill, and the one thing you can do to develop it.  

Why External Self-Awareness is Critical to Leadership Success

External self-awareness is understanding how others see you. It's essentially stepping outside your bottle in order to clearly understand how others see your label.  

It's easy to understand why this is a critical leadership skill. When you understand how others see you, you can develop behaviors that help others feel more at ease around you. I'm not saying you need to change who you are to please everyone. I'm saying external-self awareness allows you to simply file down your rough edges and make it easier for others to interact with you. While most people believe they are self-aware, Dr. Eurich and her team discovered only 10–15% of leaders actually possess significant levels of self-awareness.

For example, I once worked with a CEO who'd frequently make a snorting sound when he breathed deeply. The first time I heard it, I thought he had a cold and was just clearing his nose. He wasn't. The habit persisted, and I realized he had no idea how startling it was. In fact, it was so obnoxious that it became an ongoing joke among his employees when he wasn't in the room. But, if you would have asked him if he was self-aware, he would have given you a confident, resounding, "YES".

His uncorrected habit revealed an uncomfortable truth: at his company with over 50 employees, there wasn't a single person who could approach him and hold a serious conversation about his habits. When you lack self-awareness, you also tend to lack the strong relationships needed to engage in helpful-but-awkward conversations. You're woefully unaware of the actions that jeopardize interpersonal trust. You'll make tone-deaf comments and unintentionally irritate others.

How to Develop External Self Awareness

If you're trying to guess how others see you, you're likely to get it wrong. Instead, you should cultivate relationships with people who can help you become more self-aware. Here's a simple four-step process that can help:  

List all people who care about your success. Identify people in your life who aren't competing against you… they're rooting for you!

Of those people, circle the people who you can trust to tell you the unpolished truth as they see it. No hangers-on or sycophants should make this list! 

From the people you circled, underline those who are close enough to observe your leadership in action. You need to be confident they can bring you specific, real world examples to anchor their reflections when they talk to you.

Now, your list should be small. Approach them one on one, and give them permission to tell you the truth. You might say something like this:

"I need your help. I want to be a more Authentic Leader, and like everyone, I have blind spots. I want people I can trust who can tell me the truth I may not see about myself. I’d like to understand how others perceive me, for better or for worse. That’s why I'm giving you permission to give me candid feedback whenever you see something I should know. I trust your opinion, and I know you'll tell the truth, even if it hurts. Can I count on you to do that for me?" 

Sometimes leaders will use a leadership coach for this role. You might consider the same. Regardless of the method you use to understand how others perceive you, you would be well served to develop systems to develop greater levels of external self-awareness.