On Self-Awareness

What is your damage, Heather?
— Veronica Sawyer

Those of a certain age <ahem> will remember this comeback from the halls of high school. The question, however, is critical. Those who achieve self-awareness likely have spent a significant portion of their lives exploring the answer.

Jim Collins discusses the role of self-awareness in leadership in his seminal book Good to Great. “Level 5 leaders [Collins' highest order] are a study in duality: modest and willful, shy and fearless.” Leaders able to project conviction yet be truly and constantly receptive to dissent and ideas from throughout the organization cannot exist without high degrees of self-awareness. 

Without knowing your damage, you may be capable of determining what makes you tick but you will be blind to what makes you react.

Self-awareness is my number one predictor of future success because it essentially predetermines one’s capacity for growth. Combine self-awareness with exceedingly high levels of intellect and curiosity and – BOOM – you’ve got a winner on your hands. Add experience and the necessary winning personality to the mix and you should do all you can to prevent the candidate from walking out the door. But please don't break the law like Veronica and J.D. did.

Without knowing your damage, you may be capable of determining what makes you tick but you will be blind to what makes you react. If you’ve often found yourself angry, defensive, or aggressive, there is a deep seated fear that is being triggered. Walling it off may have saved you as a child but it’s limiting you as an adult. The truthful exploration of your joys and traumas, your desires and needs, and your habits and peccadillos is necessary to understand why you do the things you do. 

Collins posits that great companies "became relentlessly disciplined at confronting the most brutal facts of their current reality." I say this is true of great leaders as well. I devote considerable energy to this exploration. The mind doesn’t want to walk down these unpleasant avenues. The psyche is built to defend itself. Reflecting on your shortcomings is a choice you must make. How can you improve a habit if you don’t understand its origins? You empower yourself to internalize life’s lessons and achieve new levels of personal and professional success if you can closely and critically observe yourself, particularly when you are exposing the raw wounds of the damage holding you back. 

Too much unexplored damage and, one way or another, your behavior will change to the point where it's noticeable to others. If you aren’t self-aware, it means your mood is being affected by something you don’t know (or want to know) is bothering you. If you are self-aware however, you are constantly practicing being your best self and rising to the occasion. If one is conscious as to who they are, how they think, and what they fear, they have the tools to affect their own change. Self improvement is impossible without self awareness. 

The mind doesn’t want to walk down these unpleasant avenues. The psyche is built to defend itself. Reflecting on your shortcomings is a choice you must make.

Self-aware teams persevere through adversity and learn at ever increasing rates. Self-aware managers know how to build effective teams because they challenge their teams to become ever more aware of what motivates and stifles them (collectively and as individuals) and thus their decision making. A highly functioning team knows who each team member truly is, how they think, and how the combos of those thinking modes interact. Highly functioning teams have the courage to own their behavior and they use this collective self-awareness to be the change they wish for. Smart, curious, self-aware teams can achieve any goal and carry out any plan.

I've previously written about wanting to build heterogeneous teams of people who are continuously exploring their gifts and their shortcomings and building each other up as a result of those explorations. How do you identify these candidates? Brains and experience and niceness can all be tested. Here are just a few of the questions I mix into a 60-90 minute conversation that I believe expose a candidate's level of and capacity for self-awareness:

  • What's the single most important thing you do every day?
  • Describe a time you felt you were right but you still had to follow someone else's directions.
  • What were you doing the last time you looked at a clock and realized you had lost all track of time?
  • What business do you fantasize starting?
  • What would you most like to learn working at MyCo that will help you in your future after MyCo?
  • Where do you not want to be in five years?
  • What would you say is the biggest misperception people have of you?
  • Without thinking quickly name three reasons why I should not hire you.
  • Tell me about the last time a co-worker or customer got angry with you. What happened?
  • What do you enjoy most about working and what do you enjoy least?
  • Are you nice? When are you not nice? Tell me about the last time you were not nice.

Self-reflection can take place anywhere at any time. I’m getting better at the habit of writing a few things down when I’m feeling agitated and reacting emotionally. It’s difficult, and the answer isn’t always there. But growth starts with asking ‘Why?’. If I can learn to spend more time seeking to understand rather than to be right, I’ll end up understanding and being right more often.