Human beings—and that includes most leaders—are relational.
Self-leadership is fundamental to good leadership, but it is not the end-game.
Self-awareness for self-awareness sake has a limited value.
Through introspection and reflection we can get to know a great deal about ourselves—as far as we know. The problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Only when we are able to test our assumptions about ourselves, can we know if we are getting it right. It is when we see ourselves in relation to others and in relation to a higher purpose that we really begin to clarify (and many times even identify) our core values, beliefs and intentions. We can all know who we think we are, but it isn’t until we get out and interact with others that can begin to see where we are right and where we have been fooling ourselves.
Who we are takes on meaning when it is in the context of our relationship with others. Superman’s stance on “truth, justice and the American Way” is pointless if he remains isolated in his Fortress of Solitude. His values only have meaning in relationship to other people. All the self-knowledge in the world counts for very little if it is not put to work in the service of others.
Self-awareness that points to your unique contribution in the world is leadership. Who you are takes is leveraged when it is placed in the service of other people. Surely we must lead with integrity—in a manner consistent with who we are. However, the only way to know if we are really doing that is by looking at how we impact the lives of others—how our leadership is experienced by others.
Self-awareness provides the opportunity for us to close the gap between who we think we are or want to be and who we actually are at a particular point in time. But that can only be achieved with feedback of some kind. I want to share a lengthy story provided by Scott Weiss in his great book DARE, to illustrate this point. It’s a book about trust in leadership and the trust that is generated by knowing who you are and leading as that person.
At thirty-five, I was already an executive vice president with Turner Broadcasting, overseeing two divisions and reporting directly to the second most senior executive who soon would be named the company’s CEO. I believed that I was very much at the top of my game, already delivering a lot of high-level presentations, and getting consistent positive feedback. I was more than a little offended by the suggestion that I needed any help at all with my communication skills. But I went.
In Atlanta, I participated in Speakeasy’s exclusive, invitation-only workshop for C-suite executives. Called “The Leader’s Edge,” this intense three-day workshop focused on communication style and delivery with respect to leadership. In spite of my initial resistance, I did my best to participate without revealing my conviction that I felt superior to this target audience that needed help with communication and presentation skills. I wasn’t the least bit nervous when it came time to watch the video recordings of our individual presentations. I was sure I’d done just fine.
With the others in our group, I watched as the executive persona of Scott Weiss delivered his speech from the screen. The guy up there looked pretty good. Very sure of himself. Very corporate. Very buttoned up. I expected to be told, as I always had been before, that I was a very effective presenter. But after a moment, Sandy Linver, the faculty leader who had directed our session turned to ask me a question.
“So,” she said, “as you look at yourself, objectively, how do you perceive this person?”
“Fine,” I said. “He seems knowledgeable. Experienced. Very confident.”
“Hmm,” she said. “That’s interesting. If you could separate yourself from this person and experience him objectively, would you want to hang out with a person like that on the weekend?”
It was a strange question. But I looked at that person frozen on the TV monitor and thought about it. Reluctantly, I had to tell the truth.
“No,” I said. “Probably not.”
“Really?” she asked. “And why not?”
“Well,” I said, “because I don’t hang out with people like that.”
I’m not sure whether there was a collective gasp from the audience or just a stunned silence, but what she said next definitely stunned me.
“You know, don’t you, that you’re talking about yourself?”
Yes. I was. I had just admitted that the person I was projecting was not someone to whom I could relate. He wasn’t even someone I really liked!
And apparently, I wasn’t the only one to be put off by Scott Weiss’s executive persona. In our remaining time together, other members of the audience began to offer more specific impressions of how they had experienced me as a communicator, and as a person.
Those were just some of the terms they used. I had never heard myself described this way before. I felt like the emperor with no clothes.
I had not gone to Speakeasy for a consciousness-raising experience. But I sure had one. In the weeks following that close and uncomfortable encounter with my own executive persona, I did a lot of thinking. I examined what I had learned about how others actually did experience me, and thought about how I wanted people to experience me. There was a gaping abyss between those two extremes, and I realized that I had a lot of work to do to bring them closer together—to become more congruent as an individual and as a leader. I needed to find my authentic self and learn how to bring more of my real personality to my vocation.
I appreciate Scott Weiss sharing this story, for it’s not just a process all growth oriented leaders must go through, but a process we must seek out continuously.
Feedback is a process that, if we allow it, will keep us honest with ourselves. We see things as we are; and we see ourselves through our intentions. Feedback gives us a reality check that we are free to accept or reject, but without it we have no way to combat our own self-deception.
We must be able to experience ourselves in relation to other people if we are to have a genuine understanding of who we are and why we do what we do.
So the place to begin if we truly want to know yourself is to reflect on the impact that we have on others. Only then can we lead authentically knowing that our inner being is congruent with our outer behavior.
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Of Related Interest:
The First Step in Self-Awareness Isn’t You
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