The Case for Self-Aware Leaders

CEOs know how their organizations operate. But a study suggests they don’t always see the impact of their actions. 

Confession: I roll my eyes a bit whenever I come across something in the leadership literature that talks about the importance of being “self-aware.” Leaders, drowning in data, tend to be profoundly well-informed about what’s happening at the organizations they lead. Calls to be “self-aware” can feel a little condescending and hokey, the stuff of vintage soft-rock hits.

But McKinsey & Company’s State of Organizations 2023 report, released late last month, puts some meaningful metrics around matters of CEO self-awareness. Just as no department works well when it’s siloed off, top leaders can’t be islands unto themselves without consequences. As the report puts it, leaders “need to be able to lead themselves, they need to be able to lead a team of peers in the C-suite, and they need to have the leadership skills and mindset required to lead at scale, coordinating and inspiring networks of teams.”

Only 25 percent of survey respondents said their leaders are engaged, passionate, and inspiring.

As evidence for that, the report found that only 25 percent of respondents—2,500 executives from large global organizations—describe top leaders as “engaged … passionate, and inspiring employees to the best possible extent.” The other piece of evidence, the study points out, is that there’s simply more volatility in the workplace now, between larger economic forces and a workforce that has made radical shifts in the past decade thanks to DEI efforts, hybrid offices, and more.

So, yes, a little self-awareness isn’t necessarily so hokey. But what does that look like? According to the survey, the largest proportion of respondents (46 percent) say the most important element of leadership for their organizations is role modeling—“building respect and considering the ethical consequences of decisions.” That’s closely followed by 37 percent who value “inspiring others” and 35 percent who say “developing people.”

In other words, people want to feel seen, because they’re seeing you. 

And what they’re looking for is a sense of purpose—not just in themselves, but in the organization as a whole. When leaders are alert to that, it can have practical knock-on benefits: the report notes that “employees at purpose-driven companies are four times more engaged at work.” At a moment when recruitment and retention of top employees is a large stressor in the C-suite, that’s not a small thing.

Associations, of course, are well-equipped to be purpose-driven organizations, given how they’re inherently focused on supporting an industry or affinity group. But they’re no more immune to cultural struggles and checked-out leadership than your average widget-maker—CEOs need to be on top of future trends, workplace culture, and care about addressing the challenges that both can present. 

The fixes regarding self-awareness can be as diverse as the range of CEOs. McKinsey recommends developing a practice of self-assessments. What are your default behaviors in stressful situations? How do you work through fears? What limitations do you see in your leadership style, and—crucially—what are you doing to address it? The survey found that the most commonly stated challenge to changing leadership style (40 percent) is “lack of incentive.” But of course, the incentive is there—it’s just a matter of looking at the members, staffers, and stakeholders who are invested in the organization’s success. And looking at yourself as well. 

What practices have you developed to adapt your leadership style to stress and volatility? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Sean Anthony Eddy/iStock)

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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