Saturday, May 29, 2010

Coaching Lessons: Self-Awareness

There's self-awareness and then there's self-awareness. Call them homonyms if you like, but there are any number of forms of self-awareness.

Knowing yourself might refer to your ability to know your role in a family or a company or a team and to act accordingly.

If the CIO starts acting like the CEO then he does not know who he is. The same pertains when the CEO starts acting like an outside consultant. If a father starts acting like a brother toward his son, then he too lacks self-awareness.

Knowing yourself might also refer to your knowing your tastes, what you like and dislike.

If you know that you do not like tangerine sherbet or exotic vacations or grand opera, you will probably not choose to indulge them.

Someone who hates action adventure movies will probably avoid them. And someone who loves Harlequin romances should probably not avoid them.

And then there is the kind of self-knowledge that refers to what therapists call insight. In therapy, you know something about yourself when you discover that you have been choosing to date the wrong people because your parents were clearly wrong for each other. Or you might understand that you are trying to drop out of school because you have been traumatized by bullies. Or you might come to believe that you wanted to be a banker because you were improperly toilet trained.

All of these insights might have some conversational value. Depending on you audience you can trot them out to show that you have gained self-awareness,. None of them will really help you to resolve the problem they identify.

Knowing why that your parents were wrong for each other will not show you how to make a better choice of a partner. In fact, you have probably always known it, and look where it's gotten you.

Knowing that you are afraid to be bullied will not get you any closer to the school. You have always known it. It has always weighed on your consciousness. The more you are aware of it the less you want to go to school. Your problem is that you do not know what to do to stop the bullying. And that has nothing to do with being aware of your feelings of powerlessness.

Finally, knowing that you chose to become a banker because you were improperly toilet trained, a piece of insight that used to count as the height of psychoanalytic self-awareness, will not tell you whether or not you should continue being a banker or should go off to the woods and throw pots. You would not have to be very much of a Freudian to trace pot throwing back to a deviate version of toilet training.

This is as good way as any introduce a final definition of self-awareness, one that I have, after Peter Drucker, mentioned before. That is: knowing what you are good at, and what you might, with enough work, truly excel at. Link here.

Should you pursue a career as a banker? The answer does not lie in your childhood or your tastes. It lies in knowing whether or not you are good with numbers. If you are a natural with numbers then banking or a similar field would be a good fit for your talents.

It's a lot easier to get better at something you're good at than to get good at something you're bad at. Self-awareness in this sense of the term involves knowing which is which.

And finally, there is the self-awareness that refers to your character flaws and strengths. Knowing yourself means knowing that you have a tendency to be irresponsible or undisciplined and setting out to correct them. It might also mean knowing that you are kind and considerate and punctual.

Alexandra Levit summarizes these latter forms of the concept: "Self-awareness, which may be defined as being conscious of what you are good at while acknowledging what you have to learn, is one of the most underrated leadership skills.... [L]eaders are more likely to be unaware of how their behavior impacts others. Also, in appearing to know everything all the time and disguising their mistakes and weaknesses, they diminish their credibility with colleagues and reports." Link here.

This concept has many different angles. Let's examine some of them.

First, self-awareness must involve knowing whether you have the talent to be a great leader. Not everyone does. Some people do much better as consultants than as commanders. Some do better working on their own than working in or in front of a group. Others are a natural at taking charge, motivating others, and producing team harmony.

Second, a leader must know himself well enough to know when and how to delegate. If the leader has an expertise in accounting he might decide to take personal charge of the accounting operation. But if his expertise is in law, he would do best to delegate the major responsibility for running the marketing department. If a general has been promoted because of his expertise in battlefield strategy, he should not also try to take control over logistics.

Third, a leader knows when he has made a mistake and admits it. This involves modesty and humility, the ability to submit yourself to judgment. It is commonly understood that schoolteachers are supposed to have all the answers. At times, this leads teachers to pretend that they know the answer when they do not.

A teacher will be more respected if he or she admits to a knowledge gap than if he or she pretends to know it all.

When the stakes are higher, however, admitting to a major mistake can be very costly indeed. If a general ordered an assault that ended up like the Charge of the Light Brigade, admitting the mistake would mean forfeiting his career. If a CEO personally approved the relocation of manufacturing facilities, and if political events shut down the new plants, he must accept responsibility for his error. Especially, if those more savvy in politics had warned him.

Finally, Levit emphasizes that leaders lead by example. This concept dates to Confucius, and it means that leaders need to have a basic understanding of how their behavior sets the tone and the mood and the spirit of their company, their brigade, or their team.

Knowing yourself means knowing that if you project an attitude of disinterest, then everyone around and under you will emulate your example. It means that when you see a bad attitude or low morale among your staff you first look at the kind of example you have been setting for them.

Seeing how others react to you might have everything to do with how you present yourself to them. Thus, when your team has developed bad habits, do not start out blaming them for having had bad training, but start taking a long, hard look at yourself, asking what there is about your appearance, your demeanor, your attitude, your work habits that might be producing functional disharmony.

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