The Foundation for Leadership is Self-awareness

why you should be sent to leadership training

The Foundation for Leadership is Self-awareness

“The older I get the less I listen to what people say and the more I look at what they do.” — Andrew Carnegie

Inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Delphi in B.C., BC in ancient Greece, were over a 100 Delphic maxim. The maxims are said to be provided by the oracle of Delphi by the God Apollo. The one perhaps best known today is two simple words “Know thyself.”

The OED defines self–awareness as conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires. It seems to be a rare commodity in the animal kingdom. The scientific test for self-awareness in animals is pretty simple mark is placed on their face. Then, show them a mirror and observe their actions to see if they recognise the reflection in the mirror with a mark on the face as their own.  A select few have passed that test.

Only a few species of apes, dolphins, elephants and humans. For human children self-awareness starts to emerge between fifteen and twenty-four months. At this time, children are learning that they are different from other people. They are becoming more aware that others may have beliefs, desires, and feelings that differ from their own. Research has shown that once young children reach this level of self-awareness, new emotions like embarrassment, envy and empathy emerge.

As far as we know, only these species harbour a class of large spindle-shaped neurons (called VENS). These connect the executive brain to the emotional centers and activate when we see our own reflection. Neuroscientists see them as part of the brain circuitry for a sense of self. In other words “this is me, this is how I feel” and our sense of personal identity.

Clearly being self- aware provides some evolutionary advantage for humans. Why is it particularly important for leaders? I could suggest you consider David Brent from the sitcom The Office. The character is a role model for being self-unaware.

For example, there is a 2010 study by Green Peak Partners and Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The study examines seventy-two executives, from a mix of firms and turnover. They examined a number of leadership traits and correlated them with subordinates and peer’s perspectives and the firm’s performance.

Driving for Performance


Tough, ”results at all costs” executives tend to reflect poorer financial results. They generated perceptions of bullying, arrogance, dogmatism, low competence and a lack of strategic intellect. Interestingly, the strongest positive correlation between a trait and organisational performance was self-awareness. Then followed good interpersonal skills. This isn’t that surprising if you consider that a realistic view of yourself and your limitations could motivate greater attention to getting better. This also means being more open to change. It could lead to a more thoughtful approach to recruitment and developing talent to augment your strengths and supplement your weaknesses.

The beliefs on important management and leadership qualities commonly
include being authoritative, decisive, forceful and perhaps somewhat controlling. If these driving behaviours are not effectively moderated by a high degree of awareness as to how one comes across. Then these qualities also have the potential to easily alienate those on the receiving end.

Self-awareness might not get as much attention in the leadership literature as being visionary, strategic or charismatic. We believe lack of self-awareness, in our experience, is one of the greatest leadership careers de-railers.