Authentic Leadership: Why self-awareness generates the best leaders

Have you had the experience of working with an unpredictable boss? You may have found yourself walking on eggshells around him or her, feeling unsure of what to expect each day when you showed up at work.

I had the unfortunate situation of working for an unpredictable boss when I first started out in my career in technology. He did not take responsibility for his decisions – instead he blamed team members for his mistakes. His mistakes almost cost me my job because he chose to make me the scapegoat as the new employee. However, I stood up for myself and learned some important lessons along the way.

The most important lesson for me was to learn how not to behave as a team leader.

Which leadership style is best?

There are many debates over which forms of leadership are the best; authoritarian (command and control), democratic (distribution of responsibility), laissez-faire (team self-regulates with minimal interference) and others. Different leadership styles are appropriate for different situations. For example an authoritarian style is more appropriate in the military.  Laissez-faire works well in an agile-scrum methodology in software development with a mature team.

It’s possible one person could demonstrate any one of these leadership styles, however one style may dominate, depending on the personality and level of self-awareness of the person. You can’t change your boss’s personality and behaviour, but you can change how you react in any given situation. You can also educate yourself about the qualities of an authentic, self-aware leader.

Authentic leadership starts with self-awareness

We are all different and bring our own set of experiences, passions and personality into our leadership style. Embracing your unique personality and experiences as a leader is authentic leadership.

With a lack of self-awareness, a person may react, instead of reflect when problems arise, as in the example of my former boss. Had he taken time to reflect on his actions, he may have taken responsibility instead of blaming others. We could have avoided a lot of unnecessary stress that impacted our entire project team.

We are all human and we make mistakes. A self-aware leader learns from their mistakes and will aim to do better the next time. It’s important to be humble; to admit when a mistake has been made, apologize when needed, then move on, rather than dwell on the problem.

Know your strengths and weaknesses

An authentic leader is aware of their strengths and weaknesses and of their impacts on others. Knowing your strengths helps you to focus on what you can do well, while knowing your weaknesses allows you to identify which skills you need to develop, or when to ask for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of a smart leader because it takes a team to get the job done.

A good leader is typically high self-monitoring of their behaviour and emotions. For example, they more readily reflect on their behaviour, perhaps daily or even in the moment. High self-regulation allows an individual to course-correct more quickly, avoiding an escalation of a potential sticky situation.

A low-self monitoring person may have little to no awareness of their actions and emotions, which leads to repeating the same mistakes over and over again, often at the expense of their colleagues.

How do you become more self-aware?

Know your purpose. Why are you in a leadership position? Who are you here to serve and why? If you are unsure, or disconnected from your purpose, chances are you may be experiencing challenges in your day to day job. A challenge is not a bad thing; it’s an opportunity to develop self-awareness and to experience growth. Getting clear on your purpose and who you are here to serve as a leader will allow you to excel in your position, and to better serve others.

You already have various tools available in your personal development toolkit to build self-awareness. The key is to spend a few minutes every day to try out different options and see what works for you. For example journaling, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, or take a walk in nature. Any activity that allows you to disconnect from your routine and to tune in to your inner voice for guidance is helpful for you to learn about yourself.

Bringing it all together

Whether you are striving to become a leader, or you’re already a seasoned executive, you may have observed that some people are naturally good leaders, while others need to work on refining their skills to become a good leader. When you take time to reflect, to develop your self-awareness and to make small adjustments, you are on your way to becoming a more authentic leader.

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