The Value of a Self-Aware Leader

Even the best executives have blind spots. A little introspection can help uncover them, but getting feedback beyond the performance review is essential.

Execs eager to improve their leadership skills are often encouraged to look inside themselves, taking personality tests and performing self-assessments. But that’s only doing half the job.

Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich thinks CEOs and other leaders do well to put themselves under the microscope. But that analysis also demands taking a look at how they’re perceived by others—staffers, volunteer leaders, members, and other stakeholders. “Frequently neglected is the idea that we should also know how other people see us,” Eurich recently told Knowledge@Wharton. “People who have both types of self-knowledge and balance them are the ones who are the most successful at work and in life.”

Eurich explores this territory in her new book, Insight, interviewing a variety of Fortune 500 executives about how they became more aware of their leadership strengths and blind spots. Some of her advice effectively boils down to a counterintuitive recommendation: look inward, but from an outsider’s point of view. For instance, she writes, it helps to take a look at your work style to identify trends in your actions (say, a habit of delaying decisions relating to a particular department), being candid about the feelings and consequences those actions evoke.

I don’t have to change my behavior because Bob thinks I talk too much at board meetings.

But self-awareness can’t be achieved in a bubble, or by pretending to step outside yourself—it also requires hearing feedback from the people around you. The trick is how to solicit it in a way that’s going to be useful. As Eurich points out the Wharton interview, “there have to be certain building blocks in place before leaders can say, ‘Why don’t you just tell me the truth about how you see me,’ because not only will people feel uncomfortable doing that, they might just sugarcoat everything.”

Jeffrey Cufaude, Principal at Idea Architects, who conducts leadership workshops for associations, says the self-awareness challenge can be especially pronounced in the CEO-board relationship, where direct interactions usually occur only a few times a year and a fuller assessment happens only annually. “If the primary time when the CEO receives substantive feedback from the board is the annual review, what’s happening the other 364 days?”

The implied answer: Thinking thoughts about you, not all of them positive. But that’s not a crisis—just a reality that leaders can take advantage of to better understand themselves and how they’re perceived. As an association executive director, Cufaude looked for ways to casually solicit that kind of feedback. “I might say, ‘I would love to hear if there’s something I’m doing right now that either annoys you that I could modify, or something that, if i did it, it would enhance our working relationship and it would make it easier to be successful in your role.’ That’s a way of saying, ‘What are my blind spots?’”

That’s better than the feedback-solicitation scenario Eurich mentions, but Cufaude stresses that you shouldn’t expect in-depth, candid responses at first, no matter how gently they’re asked for. Some people will never deliver anything resembling negative feedback to a superior, and those who will need time to build trust. But self-awareness, he points out, isn’t just about getting feedback to the CEO. It’s about building “feedback loops” throughout an organization, and those loops have to start somewhere.

Negative feedback—or even just a heads-up about a blind spot—shouldn’t automatically be treated as things that need fixing. (“I don’t have to change my behavior because Bob thinks I talk too much at board meetings,” as Cufaude puts it.) But they are things that require ownership on the part of the CEO. In Insight, Eurich discusses a serial entrepreneur who had to come to grips with the fact that he was a weak communicator, but who had learned to be up-front with people about that issue.

So while a My Fair Lady personality overhaul may not be necessary (or even preferable) Cufaude suggests that all leaders could stand to acknowledge those flaws. In the case of the board, where interaction is limited, the CEO may have to be direct and ask for that feedback. “What a good CEO could do, either with the whole board or executive committee, is to raise the conversation by saying, ‘I value feedback on a real-time basis,” he says, and then built a structure for that to happen.

What that structure looks like will depend on the way your board works and how comfortable you are with feedback. But the path to self-awareness is inevitably going to demand more than just hunkering over a Myers-Briggs test. “I don’t know how you can truly be self-aware if you’re not routinely collecting others’ perceptions about how you’re doing,” Cufaude says.

What do you do in your association to gather feedback on how you’re perceived, and how do you act on that feedback? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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