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Supercharge Your Leadership Development with Real Self-Awareness

By Jonathan Bates


There’s a saying out there, “It’s self-awareness or self-destruction, pick one.” Pretty dramatic, but pretty true.

I daresay you’ve seen this in action in organizations… the leader who is so confident in their opinions of how things are, that they drive the business or mission into the ground. It’s also those leaders whose style leaves “scorched earth” and makes your best employees run for the hills.

Even if they aren’t quite this extreme, they don’t know what they don’t know and executive blind spots can become executive blunders.

The good news here, it that there’s a fix for this in how you develop and groom leaders in your organization. And, it’s solved with real self-awareness for leaders.

So, how are you creating self-awareness for your leaders?


The temptation in designing leadership programs is to focus on skills and strategies, which seem so much more pertinent to the business challenges at hand. Leaders are looking for quick fixes and immediate practicality, so they prefer to be absorbed into that type of subject matter.

I refer to this as the “What” because it focuses on “What You Are”, essentially boiling the leaders down to what competencies they have and what ones they need to develop.

These are, of course, important to include but not at the expense of helping executives develop the “Who,” which refers to “Who You Are” as a leader.

People don’t follow leaders for “What They Are” but instead “Who They Are.” When was the last time you heard an employee remark, “Yes, I work even harder because he is a very competent communicator” or “I chose to join the company because she is excellent at understanding financial statements.” I think not.


How does a leader, especially one whose ticket to success has been preferring action over reflection, come to accept greater self-awareness?

For some, it is because they realize that, to quote Marshall Goldsmith, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” For others, it’s that what they were doing previously isn’t working so well, typically accompanied by some humiliating setback. Finally, some leaders have smart, trusted lieutenants who impart the reality that they do have to change.

For any of these leaders, even small increases in their self-awareness pays off in results they can see.

The Managing Director of a large branch of one of the biggest construction firms in the U.S. was encouraged by a trusted colleague to improve his self-awareness. As with many strong leaders in pragmatic fields like construction, he operated intuitively based on his instincts and “common sense” with which he had been very successful.

He was reluctant to ‘waste time’ reflecting and exploring what was ‘behind the curtain.’ However, when we started looking at his Core Authentic Self and his Core Needs, he became very engaged.  Suddenly he could give a name to what his gut had been telling him for years.

Making it more conscious and clearer is something he found he really enjoyed. It was like turning on a faucet (yes, a plumbing metaphor) and it set him on an amazing road of discovery.

In my experience, the hardest part of doing self-awareness work with executives is getting them to block time in their calendar to work on it. Despite their protestations, once you get them talking and they start seeing things about themselves that they never connected, they don’t want to stop. They rarely, if ever, get a chance to be in this space and they like it once they are there.

Half the battle is for you to maintain the confidence to persist through their skepticism and resistance to get them into the work. It takes courage, but it pays off.


Some leadership developers equate self-awareness with assessments. Assessments are great, I use many of them… behavioral assessments, 360s, EQ, etc. They provide very useful data, but they are just a part of the self-awareness picture.

You may have experienced leaders who reject the data from assessments saying things like, “That’s not me,” or “I’m more (fill in the blank) than that,” or “They just have an ‘axe to grind.'”

You have to add a more qualitative experience for them to even validate what the standardized tools are telling them. Only when it’s in their own voice do they really believe it. This involves insightful conversation.


If your self-awareness work is anything more than some report spit out of a computer, they start to get nervous. Any kind of dialogic work has them terrified that you are suddenly going to go ‘woo woo’ and ‘touchy feely’ on them.

You can have profound and engaging conversations that help them see new things about themselves if you make it easy for them to go there. The least threatening path is to provide a framework that logically makes sense to them to understand what you are doing before you start to discuss anything but the most superficial of topics.

When they ‘get’ where you are going and why it will become useful to them, they are more likely to trust you to guide them in a deeper exploration of who they are.




I’m not a trained therapist. I’m a certified coach and an experienced leadership developer. However, I can have deeper conversations that bring the client clarity without bordering on therapy. I’m clear where the boundaries are.

And, the well-used iceberg metaphor says it all. There’s way more that is invisible and beneath the surface than is visible above. Well-crafted self-awareness experiences shed light on the highly impactful but opaque parts that can make the difference between success and less-than-stellar outcomes.


The strides in neuroscience research about leadership from firms like David Rock’s NeuroLeadership Institute has helped bring brain-based insight to how the internal ‘software’ works.

Leaders need to understand how their own personal “Results System” approaches getting results. When they are consciously aware of patterns of thinking and behavior that work well for them in getting results, they can repeat it to be more effective more of the time. And, without an understanding of the patterns that do not work for them, they are doomed to repeat them.

To keep it practical for executives, the key is to keep the focus on the perceptions, beliefs, expectations, assumptions and the habits of thinking and behavior they practice as they pursue getting the results they want.

Looking at their real-life experience as a data set is far better than some abstract exercise or navel-gazing. When you tie the insight to examples from their own work and personal life (yes, both… since the patterns repeat in both places), they make connections in a more profound way.

However, this self-awareness work is not unstructured “sharing”. Few executives are willing to do that. The insights and connections come from using an easy-to-accept structure or framework to guide them through the exploration together.


Why do all this intensive work? Because it’s the foundation of all change.

Since your brain is wired to perceive change as a threat and automatically resist it, only when you understand how your internal ‘software’ operates can you deliberately take the needed steps make a change sustainable. Otherwise, you fall back into your old, familiar patterns.

All you have to do is to try brushing your teeth using the opposite hand from the one you are used to. You’ll see how awkward that feels and how much you want to go back to the way you usually do it. BTW, how is your consistency with that new commitment to daily exercise coming?

Staying on cruise control will make you miss the exit to a new destination. So much for embracing change.


Unlike the popular notion, resilience isn’t ‘bouncing back’ to the way you were before. That is reinforcing the former status quo and is actually a form of resistance.

Instead, think about resilience as ‘bouncing forward’ to a new outcome. This requires changing your thinking, shifting your expectations and taking new and sometimes very different actions.

For instance, do you really want go back to investing a large amount of time (and stress) in a daily roundtrip commute to the office? How have you re-deployed that time and energy into something different for yourself? That’s resilience.

The thing about the internal system is that it is backward looking – it only knows what it’s seen before. It’s all about the rear-view mirror. To move ahead in a better direction, you must be intentional about examining and changing your patterns of thinking and behavior.

If you aren’t self-aware, this is a complete mystery to you and you end up stuck where you are while pining for the way things used to be.


A significant part of real self-awareness is finding out who you are and what is genuine for you. To be an authentic leader, you must actually know who you are authentically.

This means mining through all the things you’ve been told about who you should be, what you should want, and what you should do to get to the real person inside.

Many leaders spend a great deal of time and energy protecting that true inner person from view (if they even know it at all) for fear of being vulnerable. Yet there is massive strength in the ability to show who you really are as it gives those who work for you the inspiration to do the same. It’s permission to be a human being, not know everything and to try things and make mistakes.

If you don’t think that authenticity is important in a leader, all you have to do is watch a movie with the sound turned off. After a few minutes, you can tell who is being truthful, who is lying and who is really authentic in their words and behavior, even without the audio. Are you going to trust and follow someone who you read as inauthentic?

Isn’t it better for a leader to really know who they are so they can be congruent and effective? Their people know. Sometimes the leader is the last to know. Help them find themselves as a leader.


Innovation is a much-sought-after commodity these days. At the heart of it, innovation comes from the ability to look at things differently, identify different possibilities and then have the courage and risk-taking ability to try something new. It’s a complete inner game.

Helping a leader see how their perceptions, beliefs, expectations and assumptions are having an impact on their results and frees them break out of the box. Being aware of their habits and patterns of fostering ideas, practicing creativity and taking risks is the first step in being able to do it consistently and create new solutions to the presenting challenges.

It’s all about being able to innovate rapidly in an accelerating business climate. Real self-awareness opens the door to taking a leap forward. Maybe opens a window too. Or, just blows the roof off completely!


No matter what leadership development programs you are using, from a vendor partner or homegrown, incorporate strong self-awareness experiences and coaching into your learning strategy and curriculum.

Among my “best of breed” favorites to add are a behavioral assessment from The Predictive Index®, a Leadership Circle Profile® 360 from Leadership Circle®, an emotional intelligence assessment (EQ-i®), and the deep-dive coaching experience tools Results Accelerator™ and Results Roadmap™. All layer well into any leadership program.

Whatever path you choose, make sure that you have real self-awareness front-and-center to supercharge your leadership development.

Your leaders will thank you (after they finish grumbling, of course).






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