Self-awareness, as part of the Emotional Intelligence framework, can be challenging for leaders to assess given the interdependence between self-evaluation and self-awareness. Simply stated, we know what we know. Beyond that, we rely on external cues, guidance and social perceptiveness. Although the workplace provides an opportunity for leaders to develop self-awareness, it is often restricted by a lack of focus and by not recognising the impact that a lack of self-awareness can have on teams.

Self-awareness levels are determined by a number of influential factors, the knowledge of which promote focus. These include:

  • Feedback: The state of our personal and professional relationships often determine how we receive feedback. Inviting feedback is an essential part of developing self-awareness.
  • Accountability: Taking ownership for who we are and want to be, and being accountable to those around us.
  • Conscience and consciousness: Subtle internal thoughts serve as radar for how we show up in the world. Our conscience needs to engage consciously in order to align and strengthen our internal search for meaning, spirituality and drive.
  • Commitment to personal and professional development: The development journey of self-awareness and management is not automated; it is an on-going challenge.
  • Exposure: Not everyone has the privilege to work in an environment that provides opportunities for challenge and growth.
  • Survival mode: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs highlights that basic needs need to be met before searching for psychological fulfilment and self-actualisation. Thus, if basic financial and living needs are not met it is challenging to progress to personal and professional development including self-awareness.

The language used to refer to awareness often implies that there are two extremes: being aware or being unaware. I however believe that we can trace a continuum of self-awareness progress as we consciously engage it in the realm of Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Effectiveness:

  • Unaware: Due to the factors highlighted above, one may be labelled unaware, although it is not usually a self-awarded descriptor. Even within this designation, there are various levels of awareness resulting from our exposure to life’s comparative processes such as experiencing hardship or joy.
  • Retrospective awareness: This level of awareness is not yet integrated in prevention of our language or behaviours. It surfaces when we make statements such as “I shouldn’t have said or done that”. We are aware enough to know that our habitual ways of being are not who we wish to be.
  • In-the-moment awareness: Here we are aware enough to catch ourselves in the moment. Perhaps in the heat of the moment our conscious intentions emerge to rescue our habitual patterns and we may hear ourselves say “Sorry, I am not meaning to sound so angry, let me calm myself down”.
  • Pre-emptive awareness (also known as integrative awareness): We are able to resist falling into old behavioural patterns and align our language and actions with our intended being.

Stephen Covey indicates the importance of leadership integrity through the following statement: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and judge others by their behaviours”. Awareness is essential for management and leadership effectiveness.

In reality, we cannot manage what we don’t know. A GPS set to a certain destination will never reach that destination if it fails to pick up one’s current location. The process of self-awareness and self-management is similar. We cannot manage what we are not aware of. It is for this very reason that we hear senior leaders chastising team members for things they themselves are guilty of.

Leadership consultants are often invoked in the professional world to actuate behaviour change. This is an unsustainable quick fix akin to placing a band aid on a broken bone. This is especially so when there is little understanding that behavioural patterns are determined by emotions, beliefs, values and responses to experiences.

The concept of an iceberg metaphor is helpful in understanding this process. Working at the ‘tip of the iceberg’, i.e. focusing just on visible change, is not an authentic development journey that leads to inspirational or effective leadership. It is only those leaders who are able to manage themselves that are able to manage others effectively.

‘We cannot lead where we ourselves are not willing to go’, therefore becomes the adage for successful leadership engagement and effectiveness.

This article first appeared in, the knowledge hub for HR professionals.