Seven Steps Leaders Can Use To Cultivate Self-Awareness

November 4, 2016

Forbes Coaches Council

Top coaches offer insights on leadership development & careers.  

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.


Maureen Metcalf

Maureen Metcalf, CEO of Metcalf & Associates, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, coach and consultant.


Self-awareness is an integral trait for effective leadership. As a leader, you must adapt to the changes of your organization and surroundings. This can be tough, especially when pressing issues preoccupy you. Can you read the situation and change your behavior quickly?

If not, you need to build your self-awareness and self-management skills so that you can remain effective throughout the challenges that most leaders now confront on a daily basis. Or as my colleague, retired Air Force general Dale Meyerrose, often states, “It’s impossible for someone out of control to lead anyone, including a person dying of thirst to a drink of water.”

Leading others is as much about influence and credibility as anything else. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the leader to be aware of their interactions with others, both perceived and actual. Emotional awareness and the ability to manage emotions effectively are a key to effective leadership. When leaders are self-aware, they can sense their feelings and the impact they are having on others and correct it quickly as necessary. For many people, this is intuitively obvious but for others, it is a skill they need to invest time in developing.

The good news is self-awareness is a skill that can be developed like other leadership skills — but it requires continuous practice. Here are a few steps that you can test yourself in order to build self-awareness:

  1. Identify a behavior to refine.Start with one behavior. For example, let’s say “Bill” tends to micromanage. This may have worked for him as a supervisor and manager, but it may be getting in the way of his success in a new position. He needs to pinpoint a process for sustained improvement.
  2. Learn its effects on other people.Notice the impact that behavior has on others (and yourself) and collect that information. When do you demonstrate this behavior? When is it worse? What has worked in the past to manage it? This is being self-aware of a certain behavior.

For Bill, let’s say his micromanagement is worse when working on projects his boss cares about because he wants to make sure he has all the answers to her questions. But for other projects, he is less involved, which leaves him looking unpredictable to his staff — they don’t know how to anticipate his behavior.

  1. Find approaches to manage the trigger.Can you reduce the frequency or intensity of the trigger? This is known as self-management. Suppose Bill has become aware of his reaction to his boss, and ironically, his boss is the one who hired a coach to help. One of the tactics I’d recommend is for Bill to be clear on the agreements he has with his boss. What does his boss want him to attend to personally, and what is she more comfortable with him having fewer details?
  1. Identify alternate behaviors when you are triggered.Avoid these triggers by learning how you’ll self-manage when they occur. Bill could, for example, delegate projects to his staff and ask for progress reports aligned with what he is reporting to his boss. He needs to develop trust in his team and allow them to do their jobs. In turn, they also need to understand his changing expectations and behaviors.
  1. Pay attention to your triggers and new behaviors.Track your progress on both. Bill and his boss could track key tasks and discuss them on a weekly basis, for instance. Getting feedback from your team is another good way to give you a better picture of your progress.
  1. Modify your approach in order to generate sustainable results.Let’s say that Bill’s team and his boss reports that he has made great progress. It is important to remember that change happens slowly and unevenly. Even though he made great progress, it took time — and some days were better than others. His team was committed to his change because it would give them more fulfilling work.
  1. Be realistic with your progress.If you are inclined to collect data, record your behavior during the course of the day – maybe a simple y/n designation to indicate if you met your standards. Jot down a sentence about what you will do differently tomorrow.

Overall, I believe self-awareness increases our probability of identifying required behavior changes and implementing them in our own work. While leaders who are not aware can still succeed in the short term, I believe their behaviors will eventually undermine the success they are trying to build for themselves and their organizations.

Forbes Coaches Council is an invitation-only community for leading business and career coaches.

Forbes Coaches Council Oct 31, 2016

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