Being self aware leads to great leadership

Few would argue with the notion that being self aware is a vital prerequisite for any effective leader.  It is, after all, a key building block for emotional intelligence, providing the foundation for greater self-regulation. In turn, being self aware leads to more astute social awareness and finely tuned social skills, including leadership.

Be careful of false promises, however.  Many books and articles have been written promising great things on the back of emotional intelligence mastery.  Unfortunately, many of these words of wisdom miss the point.  Emotional intelligence is not just a set of skills to be learned and used, as simple as switching on a light. True emotional intelligence embodies a mindset and a ‘way of being’ that is imbued with honourable intentions.

Leaders that live up to expectations

It is fashionable, indeed expected, for leaders to be in tune with their emotions, to understand themselves deeply, and to be equipped with the skills to know and read others’ emotions and motivations.  There is a danger in this, however.  A danger that lies at the very heart of how we expect our leaders to be.

Leaders are expected to know stuff. To know the strategy, to provide the direction, to comfort people during periods of uncertainty, to motivate, and have answers to difficult questions about expected future changes in the market. In short, the buck stops with the leader. It’s what they are paid top dollar for, isn’t it?

And how do leaders typically respond to these expectations?  By playing the same elaborate game of course.  By giving people what they expect.  They put on a brave face (“for the sake of morale!”) even when they are unsure. They feel pressure to come up with answers when put on the spot for fear of looking out of their depth (“you never know – you might eventually be ‘found out’ as being a fraud or over-promoted!”).  All the while, they stay outwardly calm, self-assured and in control.  In other words, they put all of their hard-learned emotional intelligence skills into practice.  The veneer of self-assuredness, and being completely in tune with people’s fears and uncertainties, proves the value of the hours spent on the books and courses to master these essential ‘people’ skills.  But, wait a minute!  Didn’t I suggest that this was all a game?

Being self aware and being true to yourself

The truth is that this is playing emotional intelligence by numbers and not from the heart.   The best leaders trust themselves – warts and all – to operate from a place of openness and honesty. This means displaying vulnerability. Yes, even at the risk of scaring the workforce, by having them know you don’t have all the answers.  Leaders who can share insecurities, hand responsibility back to others, ask questions rather than provide answers, and use emotional intelligence to learn rather than persuade and manipulate, will earn greater respect and trust in the longer term.

People will sense very quickly if your words and actions have a ‘hollow’, transactional and manipulative tone, even if they are dressed up with the emotional intelligence language you have learned. Furthermore, you will be modelling the type of behaviour that will become part of the organisation’s culture and be repeated at every level.   After all, being a leader is not about you. It is about the people being led.  Are you helping to enhance their capacity and creativity? Do you empower them to have ideas and to influence strategy?   Are they growing and developing as people under your leadership?

Being self aware is the gateway to great leadership, a prerequisite but not, in itself, sufficient.  It is not enough that leaders use emotional intelligence; it is vital that they live it.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Louis Collins is a Leadership Development Coach, founder of Gyro Consulting Services, and author of The Vital Edge (published 2014). He has a Ph.D. in Psychology and over twenty years’ experience of working as a senior executive in the global telecoms sector. As well as teaching and delivering on leadership programmes, and coaching senior leaders across a wide variety of sectors, he is an avid sports fan who enjoys playing tennis, golf, and cycling. He is also a regular blog writer, commenting on a wide range of subjects including leadership and neuroscience.