Knowing ourselves at the deepest level is not easy, as we are complex human beings with many aspects to our character. We are constantly evolving, as we test ourselves in the world, are influenced by it, and adapt to our environment — all in an attempt to find our unique place.
Self-awareness is the first element of emotional intelligence. While intellectual intelligence, or IQ, has long been thought of as an essential characteristic for managers, EQ may be more important for authentic leaders. Too many leaders believe that by being the smartest person in the room, they can use their intellect to carry the day. As a result, they overpower less forceful voices that may have the vital ideas, insights, and answers they need to succeed.
Leaders with an exceptionally high IQ get too intellectually involved and have trouble being tolerant of others. You have to have a certain level of intelligence at the top; maybe it is the 90th or 95th percentile, but it isn’t the 99th. Above that level, you need leadership skill, interpersonal skills, and teamwork more than you need a few extra points of IQ.
Without self-awareness, it is easy to get caught up in chasing external symbols of success rather than becoming the person you want to be. It is difficult to regulate your emotions, control your fears, and avoid impulsive outbursts when you feel threatened or rejected. Without being aware of your vulnerabilities, fears, and longings, it is hard to empathise with others who are experiencing similar feelings.
Many leaders, especially those early in their careers, are trying so hard to establish themselves in this world that they leave little time for self-exploration. Nor do they focus on becoming more self-aware. As they age, they may find something is missing in their lives or realise something is holding them back from being the person they want to be. They may encounter a life-changing event that causes them to reflect deeply on what they want out of their lives.
For other leaders, memories of childhood are so painful that they shut themselves off from their feelings. Anxious to bury these memories altogether, they drive extremely hard to achieve success in the tangible ways that are recognised in the external world—money, fame, power, status, or a rising stock price. Often their drive enables them to be successful, at least for a while, but it may leave them highly vulnerable to being derailed, as their lack of self-awareness can lead to major mistakes and errors in judgment.
One of the most difficult things in becoming self-aware is seeing ourselves as others see us. Although it can be difficult to hear, leaders need accurate feedback to identify their blind spots. We must get outside our egos and listen to feedback we don’t want to hear. Young people often have not developed the self-esteem to see their mistakes and take accountability for them. When you can do that and be open to new ways of doing things, the change you can accomplish is almost unlimited. The discovery process never ends.
Peeling back the onion
Knowing yourself can be compared to peeling back the layers of an onion as you search for your true self. The outer layers of the onion are the visible ways you present yourself to the world — how you look, your facial expressions, your body language, your attire, and the way you express yourself. Often these layers are rough and hardened in order to protect you from the assaults of the world around you.
Understanding your outer layers is a necessary first step to going deeper into what lies beneath, because they provide the access to your inner core. Beneath those outer layers resides your understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and what you need and desire from the world around you.
Peeling the onion further, you gain an understanding of your values and the ways in which experiences often put you in conflict with your values. Digging still deeper, you learn what is driving and motivating you. Underneath these layers of your proverbial onion lies your understanding of your life story and of the way in which your experiences build your story and create a mosaic of your life. As you approach the deepest layers surrounding your inner core, you find your blind spots and your vulnerabilities. At the core of your being is what you believe and how you envision your place on earth.
As you explore who you are, you peel back one layer only to discover a deeper and often more interesting layer underneath it. As you get nearer to your core, you find that the inner layers feel quite tender and vulnerable because they have not been exposed to the assaults of the outside world. When you do not feel in a safe place, you cover your core self to protect it from exposure and harm, and you develop a false self. At the same time you are continually growing, adding new layers of complexity, as you develop ways of interfacing effectively with the world while preserving the integrity of your core self.
Reflection and introspection
Next in the process of gaining self-awareness is taking time for personal reflection or introspection. Reflecting on your life story and your experiences can help you understand them at a deeper level — and so you can reframe your life story in a more coherent way as your future direction becomes congruent with the knowledge of who you are and the kind of person you want to become.
When leaders accept who they are and release the need to be on someone else’s fast track, they can be comfortable in their own skin. The ability to face reality and acknowledge that you can fail and still feel good about yourself is an important turning point in your self-awareness.
Self-awareness is only half of the challenge. You still have to accept yourself. But with self-awareness, accepting your authentic self becomes much easier. You see yourself clearly and accurately, and you know what you truly believe.
The key to self-acceptance is to love yourself unconditionally. It is easy to love our strengths and bask in our successes. To love ourselves unconditionally, we have to learn to accept ourselves as we are, with all our warts and our flaws, rather than wish we were different.
Once armed with a high level of self-awareness and self-acceptance, it is much easier to regulate yourself and your feelings. Your anger and emotional outbursts usually result when someone penetrates to the core of what you do not like about yourself or still cannot accept. By accepting yourself just as you are, you are no longer vulnerable to these hurts and are prepared to interact authentically with others who come into your life — your family, friends, coworkers, even complete strangers. Free of having to pretend to be someone you are not, you can focus on pursuing your passions and fulfilling your dreams.
George, B., 2010. True north: Discover your authentic leadership (Vol. 143). John Wiley & Sons.
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