Actualized Leadership: The Myth of Self Awareness

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
C.G. Jung

According to ancient Greek tradition when the wise sage Thales of Miletus was asked what is most difficult with the human condition, he responded “to know yourself.”  Think about that for a moment.  We are the only species on the planet that has the capacity for self-awareness and reflection.  We can actually stop and reflect on what we are thinking, how we are feeling, and why we are acting in a certain way.  UCLA Professor Daniel Siegel refers to this process as “mindsight” and reminds us this is a uniquely human ability to pause and reflect on our thoughts, emotions, and behavior in the moment.  Stated differently, Eckhart Tolle challenges us in the following way: “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.”

Self-awareness has long been considered the foundation for leadership and personal effectiveness.  Management gurus and researchers alike have discussed in great detail the importance of having a high degree of self-awareness in order to both play to your strengths, and to manage your negative tendencies – your Shadow.

I have observed that while many of us have the capacity for this kind of mindful awareness, most of us are unwilling to confront ourselves at this deep level.  And while there are likely as many different reasons for this lack of awareness as there are people, I think I have identified some of the more common ones:

  • We live in a StrengthsFinders Culture where it’s easier and more comfortable to confuse self-awareness with knowing only your strengths.
  • Psychological studies consistently show that individuals overestimate their capabilities and strengths and underestimate their negative traits and weaknesses.
  • We often do not ask for feedback – good or bad – and fail to take advantage of the observations and insights that are available from others.
  • It’s easier to blame others than take responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, and actions, leading to an “it’s not me, it’s them!” mentality.
  • Finally, and perhaps most tragically, we evade reality and deceive ourselves.

Socrates stated that “self-deception is the worst thing of all.” John Allison, retired Chairman and CEO of BB&T Bank and current CEO of the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, says that there is only one unforgivable “sin” in leadership: evading the truth, your truth.

Given all of this, it seems to me that it is vital we continue our journey towards self-awareness and self-actualization, or to carry over last week’s metaphor, have the courage to step out of the shallow end of the self-awareness pool and swim in the deep end.  To help facilitate this, I recommend the following:

  1. Start with an accurate assessment of yourself – both strengths and weaknesses.  You can complete any number of self-assessments, ask for feedback, or work with a coach to help you uncover blind spots and improve your self-awareness.
  2. Once you have some insight, take action!  There’s an old adage in therapy that states “Awareness Equals (=) Responsibility.”  In other words, knowing yourself isn’t enough; you must be willing to be conscious and intentional about changing habits or thinking patterns in order to grow and develop.
  3. Finally, you must remind yourself that inward reflection will lead to outward improvements and effectiveness.  Ultimately, self-awareness is more than an internal exercise.  It will allow you to manifest a more authentic and more productive external reality, including your relationships with others.

Self-awareness does not provide solace; it disturbs and disrupts.  Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term “Servant Leadership,” found that highly evolved (i.e., “actualized”) leaders are wide awake and reasonably disturbed.  They do not seek solace.  Rather, these individuals understand that it is within the personal chaos of disturbance that we are given an opportunity for true growth and personal transformation and as a byproduct, peace and serenity.

Next week, I will discuss my introduction to this kind of disruptive awareness with my professor Dr. Jerry Harvey, famed author of “The Abilene Paradox,” in what I refer to as “My F in Life” story.

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