When you think of a leader, you think of a self-assured and confident person. You might not think of someone who contemplates the Why of their actions or the mistakes they’ve made.

But in reality, leaders, like all human beings, don’t have all the answers, and are, in fact, often wrong or fundamentally flawed. The difference is that the most successful ones are aware of this. That is why they succeed.

Self-awareness is essential to leadership. It helps you get better, because you know how well you currently are doing. It helps you make the right decisions, because you know your blind spots. It helps you do great work, because you remember past mistakes and address them. Being self-aware is being self-knowledgeable.

Whether you are a manager, a teacher, or a parent, in order to lead others, you need to first be aware enough to lead yourself.

Here are some inspiring leaders and how they’ve used self-awareness to become better.

Know Your Compass

Whole Foods is growing rapidly, has a thriving employee culture, and a fanatic customer base (guilty as charged). John Mackey, the Co-CEO and founder of the company, has grown it from a two-story shop in Austin, Texas, to one of the most well-known brands in food.

As the leader of the company, Mackey looks inward whenever making a business decision. He know what he and his company stand for, and what motivates them.

For Mackey and Whole Foods, a few things are supremely important: purpose, customer loyalty and employee engagement. Here’s Mackey from an interview talking about how a company can find its compass:

The first step…is to clearly define its higher purpose beyond maximizing profits. It should then start to design everything it does around creating value for its stakeholders. It should get rid of all metrics that are not connected to value creation for stakeholders. It should then create new metrics that are leading indicators of future performance, measures such as employee passion and customer advocacy.

Know what is important to you, what motivates you and what your values. Then remind yourself of all of this whenever you are leading people or leading yourself. Find and use your compass always.

Think About Your Experiences

Richard Branson is the type of leader who will have a meeting while sky-diving. The man isn’t afraid to fail, and as his entrepreneurship record shows, he actually thrives on it. Yet he is also self-aware enough to know when he was wrong.

One example is when he tried to disrupt the soda market by introducing Virgin Cola in the mid-90s. It was mildly successful, but eventually fizzled out. Looking back, he realizes why that venture was never meant to be:

We started out with so much ambition…

 

But we realized that we’d failed to adhere to our own rules. Virgin specializes in shaking up industries where consumers are getting a raw deal, but there was no great dissatisfaction with Coca-Cola, Pepsi or the other soft drink brands at the time…So the business was a financial failure.

 

We were so intent on repeating our model that led to previous successes that we didn’t notice the problems with our idea. But we always learn from our failures, which makes us better at being self-aware.

Branson, like Mackey, knew his compass well, but in this instance, he didn’t pay enough attention to it. After this failure turned into a lesson learned, he’s able to better understand his own blind spots as a leader.

Embrace Your Failures

The meteoric rise of President Barack Obama has been attributed to many things: his soaring speeches, his cool and calm demeanor, his pretty decent comedic timing (seriously, look up his White House Correspondent Dinners). But he’s also very self-aware, especially when it comes to his short-comings.

During the 2008 campaign, after a disastrous debate performance against Governor Mitt Romney, his whole campaign was in crisis mode. The worst of it was that he looked dispirited and unsure.

Here is Obama reacting to his campaign managers’ frantic pleas to change his debate style, from the book Double Down:

Last night wasn’t good, and I know that. Here’s why I think I’m having trouble. I’m having a hard time squaring up what I know I need to do, what you guys are telling me I need to do, with where my mind takes me, which is: I’m a lawyer, and I want to argue things out. I want to peel back layers…

 

It’s against my instincts just to perform. It’s easy for me to slip back into what I know, which is basically to dissect arguments. I think when I talk. It can be halting. I start slow. It’s hard for me to just go into my answer. I’m having to teach my brain to function differently.

 

I can’t tell you that ‘Okay, I woke up today, I knew I needed to do better, and I’ll do better…I am wired in a different way than this event requires.

 

I just don’t know if I can do this.

This proved to be a cataclysmic moment for the campaign. There was still work ahead for him, but by acknowledging his failure, and the fears he had, he was better equipped to do something about it. He had defined the problem.

Understanding your flaws doesn’t mean you accept them and do nothing else. It means you are aware that they are there, and you need to work on them in order to become a better leader. Surprisingly, many leaders cannot accept their deficiencies in the first place, much less accept there’s work to do.

How To Become More Self-Aware

There are a few ways you can be more introspective in your work as a leader. Here are three ways that will get you far in becoming more self-aware.

Test Yourself

There are numerous tests that can help you better understand your internal mechanics: your thinking style, your behaviors, your strengths, and your personality. Here are a few good ones, many of which you can find for free online:

- Myers Briggs: one of the most well known tests. It can be very helpful, because it tells you a lot about how you naturally work and communicate with others–something you must always be aware of as a leader.

- DISC: A test growing in popularity. This test helps you understand your behaviors and personality, how you approach your work, respond to conflict, and work with others.

- Strengthsfinder: One of my personal favorites. This test finds your natural strengths. Strengths are modes of thinking or types of work that you thrive on.

Write

There’s a reason why writing is an often recommended therapeutic exercise. When you write, you explore your inner world.

Committing to a habit of writing every day can dramatically increase your level of self-awareness. I encourage trying free-writing, which is to write without thinking too much about it and with no intention to publish or show it to anyone. It’s for you and that’s it. Free-writing a few pages will explore your subconscious, your fears, your joys and everything in between.

Tell Your Stories

Just like free-writing, telling your life stories can help you find out what makes you tick. By re-telling what happened to you, now as an observer of the past, you often find hidden or lost truths. You learn what has made you the person you are today.

You can do this by writing out various stories from your life. Think of stories from your childhood, college years, first job out of school, or any other time in the past. Then just write out the story.

You can also do this by telling your story to an attentive listener. A friend, family member or even a therapist. Part of what makes therapy so powerful is that you have the full attention of the person sitting across from you.

Featured photo credit: barackobamadotcom via flickr.com

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