Leadership skills start with self-awareness

  • Article by: BILL GEORGE , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2011 - 9:06 PM

Last week I served as faculty chair for Harvard Business School's new executive course, "Authentic Leadership Development." Sixty-four executives from 60 global companies spent five intense days honing their leadership.

Here's the catch: They concentrated almost entirely on leading themselves, not others.

What does leading yourself have to do with becoming a leader? Everything, actually.

Traditional leadership development programs have missed the mark for years, as they tried to remake leaders into someone different. I had this unfortunate experience numerous times in my career. It was never successful.

One boss told me that I needed to improve my management style, which was an accurate observation. When I asked for clarification, he said, "Be more like me." That feedback wasn't helpful, as his style and strengths were completely different than mine. If I emulated him, others would have seen me as phony, and I would have been much less effective as a leader.

We've all seen dozens of leaders fail in trying to emulate great leaders. At a recent conference, I asked the participants, "Can we all agree that the 'Great Man' theory of leadership is dead?" The essence of leadership is not trying to emulate someone else, no matter how brilliant they are. Nor is it having the ideal leadership style, achieving competencies or fixing your weaknesses. In fact, you don't need power or titles to lead. You only have to be authentic.

In observing leaders for 40 years, I have never seen someone fail for lack of IQ. But I have seen hundreds fail who lacked emotional intelligence (EQ). Psychologist Daniel Goleman first popularized the concept in his 1995 book, "Emotional Intelligence.'' He defined EQ as competencies driving leadership performance, including:

• Self-awareness: reading emotions and recognizing their impact;

• Self-management: controlling emotions and adapting to change;

• Social awareness: understanding others' emotions and comprehending social networks;

• Relationship management: inspiring, influencing, and developing others while managing conflict.

In researching my 2007 book, "True North,'' several colleagues told me they hoped we could identify the definitive traits of successful leaders. More than 1,000 prior studies had failed to do so. In interviewing 125 authentic leaders, we learned that the essence of leadership comes from not from having pre-defined characteristics. Rather, it comes from knowing yourself -- your strengths and weaknesses -- by understanding your unique life story and the challenges you have experienced.

Everyone has a life story they are eager to share if anyone will listen in an accepting, nonjudgmental way. I have great admiration for Sen. Scott Brown's courage in telling his story of being sexually abused as a child. His story acknowledges the life forces that shape who we are. In sharing their stories at last week's program, the executives found liberation and power by claiming who they are, not by trying to emulate someone else.

This isn't a new idea. Four thousand years ago the Oracle of Delphi said, "Know thyself." What's new is that we are learning how important self-awareness is to leadership development. Being self-aware is easier said than done. That's why so many leaders engage in self-defeating behaviors that cause them to fail.

How can you become a self-aware leader? Start with experiences in leading others in school, sports, or early work assignments. However, having one experience after another is not sufficient. Instead of plunging immediately into the next experience where you are prone to repeat your mistakes, you need to reflect on what you learned. Introspection can come from keeping a journal, meditating, praying or just sitting quietly.

Next, seek honest feedback from people you work with. The best developmental tool is 360-degree feedback from peers, subordinates and superiors. As one leader said, "Feedback is the breakfast of champions."

Finally, develop a small group of people with whom you can be completely open and honest in sharing your joys, sorrows, fears and dreams. They will support you in challenging times and provide invaluable insights that enable you to grow as a human being and leader.

We call these small groups "True North Groups" because they help you stay on course.

Leadership is not exerting power over others or exhorting them to follow you. Rather, it results from your example of empowering others to step up and lead. Leaders do that by learning to lead themselves, becoming self-aware and behaving authentically.

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