Self-Awareness Is the Key to Becoming an Effective and Respected Leader

To be an effective leader, you must develop self-awareness, empathy, and strong interpersonal communication skills. The best leaders are willing to do the work to develop these skills and will seek support when needed. 

Personal exploration work helps you discover what drives you, what gets in your way, how to cope with daily challenges, and how to lead others successfully. Doing this work improves your self-awareness, empathy, and emotional intelligence. You will gain clarity to make better decisions and understand how you interact with and are impacted by others and how others are impacted by you. 

If you do not seek to expand your self-awareness, you will not recognize when your behavior is unhealthy or not helpful to yourself or those you lead. Your self-awareness, or lack thereof, directly affects your ability to connect and engage with stakeholders and lead your team.

Imagine plowing through each day without any self-reflection; it's like driving your car on an unfamiliar busy road wearing blurry eyeglasses. You may get to your destination, but at what cost? Increased stress, headaches, delayed time of arrival, and the negative effect on your passenger and other drivers, to name a few things. Upon arrival, you will feel unscathed if you've become numb to those everyday stressful feelings. But you'll leave an unfavorable impression on others. And even though you're ignoring it, your internal system is revved up, clouding your judgment even further.

You will likely rinse and repeat the same trip (behavior), accepting your emotional and behavioral limitations as a given or the norm, all while your organization and the people around you contend with your harmful behavior.

You cannot change what you don't understand, notice, or desire to improve.

How to create a self-awareness practice.

The overarching solution for bettering yourself and becoming the best leader you can be is to view self-awareness as a helpful, necessary, and continuous learning process. It is your job to learn about yourself and how to function at your best in all aspects of your life, including how you lead. It is not the responsibility of others in your organization to respond to your lack of awareness or cater to your problematic behavior.

Here are four steps to becoming more self-aware:

Be self-reflective. Self-awareness requires curiosity about oneself. Start by noticing your reactions, moods, and behaviors, and observe your physical reactions, such as changes in your breathing or tension in your body. Next, notice your external environment, which includes other people and their reactions, as well as circumstances that affect you, such as staff turnover, challenging team members, or an ongoing health problem. 

During this process, maintain your curiosity and motivation to learn from the information you gain, even when you see flaws and mistakes. Then, review your observations to understand more about yourself, your reactions, and other people. You can also decide whether to address a situation, modify it, or continue to observe yourself and the circumstances going forward.

Listen to your self-talk. Do you put yourself down, criticize yourself, or catastrophize situations? If so, pay attention to how you talk to yourself and the impact self-talk has on you, those around you, and your organization. You might be making matters worse and affecting your self-esteem and self-confidence, and the confidence others have in you, which impedes your leadership effectiveness. 

Change it up. Regardless of how awkward it might feel, be kind and patient with yourself. Talk to yourself as if you're talking to a good friend. Sometimes we learn from the outside in, meaning repeated supportive statements become more believable and real to us over time. Positive self-talk and gratitude for the good things in your life can calm your nervous system and create more self-confidence and clarity for better decision-making and problem-solving.

Make an effort to be present. Being present allows you to stop, view the situation, and decide how to respond. It gives you more control, so you can choose how to show up and think ahead about what you want to say. While you cannot change the other person, you can choose whether and how to respond.

To feel more present in the moment, straighten your posture, pull your shoulders back, open your chest, take a slow deep breath, and notice your feet on the floor. Connecting to the ground reminds us to get out of our heads and pay attention to whatever is taking place at that moment.

Identify areas for improvement. To help you in your process of self-improvement, think about these questions and answer honestly: 

  • Are you self-reflective? Are you curious about yourself and others?
  • Are you kind and nonjudgmental to yourself and others? 
  • Do you take feedback well? Or do you make excuses and get defensive or upset? 
  • Do you know how to effectively address challenging personalities or situations?
  • Would the people closest to you describe your personality the same way you would?

If you answered no to any of these questions, use the information as an opportunity for self-growth, because these current behaviors are not serving you. Start by picking one area to focus on. For instance, do you take time to plan for important interactions? Do you think about how you want to come across or notice how you talk to yourself? Is your mindset open and interested, or is it closed off and limiting your growth as a leader? 

Small shifts matter, so stay with your self-awareness practice. Over time, paying attention to yourself and increasing your awareness will come more naturally.

How to get the support you need. 

Everyone needs support and guidance at times. The most effective and well-respected leaders seek support when warranted, whether from an experienced colleague, an executive coach, or a mental health practitioner.

Speak to a trusted colleague. Don't underestimate the value of getting support, advice, or feedback from an experienced and respected colleague. Perhaps someone on your level or higher in your organization or a colleague not affiliated with your company. The key is reaching out to one person or a group to whom you can speak openly and comfortably. 

Work with an executive coach. Consider working with a qualified executive coach who can assist you with goal setting, dealing with big changes and challenges in your life, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and creating a healthy work-life balance. Coaches can also help you understand your employees' experiences, provide measures for assessing the organization and employee skillset, and improve your leadership skills and company culture. 

Hire a mental health professional. A therapist can help you stabilize your emotions, manage mental health conditions, gain insight into the impact of your history, challenge negative beliefs, and learn new skills to handle difficult situations or emotional dysregulation. Therapists provide a safe place for self-exploration and tools for problem-solving and supporting your overall mental health. Consider seeking outside professional mental health services if your emotions affect your daily functioning, you feel stuck or unhappy for an extended period, or you need deeper support and guidance.

As a leader, you are a role model for your organization. Let your desire to be the best version of yourself trickle down to everyone in the organization. You have the power and ability to elevate communication, emotional intelligence, and leadership effectiveness, which will positively impact culture and build a robust organization. 

You can find more resources in my online program, the Communication Protocol. When you engage in personal exploration work, you will develop deeper and healthier connections, more empathy for others, greater resiliency, and become a more effective and influential leader. It's the self-improvement work that gets you and your organization there!


©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.

 A version of this article was initially published on as: How Personal Exploration Work Helps You Become a Better Leader