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Become Self-Aware to Become an Authentic Leader

This is chapter 19 "Become Self-Aware to be an Authentic Leader" from my unpublished book: "Misused Power".

“Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. Be transparent with your team, even when the truth may be unpopular or inconvenient.”

— Bill George

For the last 20 years I took on leadership and management positions where I led business units of people from all walks of lives, different experiences, and attitudes. Just like many in this life, I worked tirelessly to deliver results and received promotions due to my efforts and the skills that I brought to the table.

Needless to say, as a working parent, my life was crazy, busy, and hectic, but I would never wish for any of it to be different. Working in corporate America allowed me to learn how to navigate politics, deal with the insensitive, rude, and backstabbers. But most importantly, I realized what I was missing in leadership capacity.

This didn’t happen until I discovered the centuries old theory of mindfulness and consequently the power of self-awareness. When I got promoted and was given additional responsibilities, after the euphoria of the act of the promotion has passed, I discovered that the higher I went up the ladder, the lonelier I felt. I started to understand the meaning of the phrase, “It is lonely at the top.”

Deep down I felt like I was left alone to survive doing that specific job of a people manager. People’s lives depended on me. I was soaking in all the pain, working insanely long hours, and neglecting my family. I was looked at as the person who had to have all the answers at work when I didn’t. The stress levels were high, and my ability to be effective at influencing others was diminishing. I started paying closer attention to me. For the first time in my professional life, I managed to look at me as an outsider, gazing at a stranger who was lost and no longer able to effectively and positively impact others unless I reinvented myself. After leading for many years, I took the job of an individual contributor serving as an education consultant to the top CEOs who were members of the exclusive leadership network.

Seeing the other side of the coin, while observing the behaviors and habits of these influential individuals, was an eye-opening experience. I was able to observe my own shortcomings when I led others, as if I was looking in the mirror. I also was given the opportunity to be exposed to the best examples of authentic leadership. None of these discoveries would have happened unless I realized the importance of self-awareness.

What exactly is self-awareness?

There are several definitions of self-awareness. All are quite simple and straightforward. The first definition that came up on Google was, “Conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.”

Another definition goes deeply into the state of our minds. “Self-awareness is a psychological state in which people are aware of their traits, feelings, and behavior. Alternately, it can be defined as the realization of oneself as an individual entity" (Crisp & Turner, 2010). Leaders who are self-aware are able to recognize their strengths and weakness and draw on others’ strengths and creativity to create better results.

During my research, I came across yet another definition mentioned by Dan Gallagher, who was a Senior Vice President of Strategic Growth Initiatives at Comcast-Spectacor. In his TEDx talk in 2014 that was posted on YouTube he said, “Self-awareness is what drives your growth. Self-awareness is slowing yourself down to speed yourself up.” It is definitely an interesting and provoking way to look at it.


Ask yourself, do you feel completely overworked with no time to turn off your racing mind and concentrate on yourself? If the answer is yes, you are not alone.


Remember Alice in Wonderland? Lewis Carroll's wild White Rabbit says, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” I believe that the quote stands true not just for time management, but also for slowing down and discovering your own self.

Leaders who succeeded, went through the discovery of this important concept. Bill George, the author of Discover Your True North, wrote in the Huffington Post (2015), that “Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. No longer is leadership about developing charisma, emulating other leaders, or looking good externally. Instead, leadership is about inspiring and empowering those you lead.”

George continued to speak an undeniable truth, “All of us want to be led by real people, those we can relate to us as human beings, not title carriers pushing the orders down the ranks.”

It is important that managers see people who work for them as whole people and not the numbers, FTEs (full time equivalent), contractors, etc. We all have life outside of work; there is no logical way to deny this fact. A good leader who understands his own shortcomings is more open to see others as humans with real talents and issues. Self-awareness is our power tool!

According to Emory University’s Philippe Rochat, there are five levels of self-awareness which unfold in early development and potential prospects ranging from "Level 0" (having no self-awareness) advancing complexity to "Level 5" (explicit self-awareness). Here is what each of the levels encompassing according to Dr. Rochat’s research, but I will touch in more details on Level 0 and Level 5.

Level 0: Confusion. The people, usually children, have a degree of zero self-awareness. They are unaware of any mirror reflection or the mirror itself. Sometimes adults can be at this level, although momentarily. They can look in the mirror and scare themselves seeing own reflection as another person just for a second. Oh, heck! That happened to me a few times when I worked too many hours without getting enough rest.

Level 1: Differentiation

Level 2: Situation

Level 3: Identification

Level 4: Permanence

Level 5: Self-consciousness or "meta" self-awareness. When people reach this level, “Not only is one’s self seen from a first person view but realizes that it’s also seen from a third person’s view. They begin to understand they can be in the mind of others.” This is the time, when we start caring and understanding how we are seen from other’s standpoint or in public view (Goffman, 1959).

We evolve, evaluate, and see ourselves differently at each stage. Once Level 5 is reached, what others think of us leads to self-evaluation. We are looking at how others value and perceive us. As a result, some could feel undervalued. It is important that leaders understand that followers can be potentially assessing their own worth based on how their superior reacts to them. If a leader doesn’t know or doesn’t understand his own feelings and actions, most likely he won’t be aware of the impact on others.

Further to the levels of self-awareness, Daniel Goleman developed his theories of emotional intelligence, where self-awareness is the first and the beginning point of high EQ.

Here is how Daniel Goleman, describes self-awareness:

“Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand personal moods and emotions and drives, as well as their effect on others. Self-awareness include self-confidence, realistic self-assessment, and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Self-awareness depend on one's ability to monitor one's own emotion state and to correctly identify and name one's emotions.”

Goldman explains, that self-awareness concerns knowing one’s internal states, preferences, resources, and intuitions. In his theory, self-awareness contains three competencies, which are:

1. Emotional Awareness

2. Accurate Self-Assessment

3. Self-Confidence

To help me with increasing self-awareness, since it aids with being a better leader of my own life, I started with pondering on a few questions.

I invite you to attempt and discover how self-aware you are. Set aside time and write down the answers to the following questions.

  • Who are YOU as a professional, a friend, a spouse, a parent, etc.? List all the roles you have in life.

  • What are you good at?

  • What do you do, when you are at your best?

  • What are you passionate about?

  • How are you feeling in the moment?

  • What do you still need to learn?

  • When was the last time you owned up to your mistakes?

  • What are you seeking to achieve in life?

Besides learning about yourself, why should you care about self-awareness?

Well, the reason is quite simple. Unless you live on a deserted island, you are surrounded by people. Leaders’ behaviors impact other people’s lives and, at times, so do their belief systems. In fact, we all affect each other in one way or another.

Self-awareness is absolutely essential to great leadership. It is not just a trendy idea that everyone is talking about daily. Daniel Goleman said, “Leadership is not about being the smartest person in the room, it is about helping other people be as smart as they can, which is the people skill.” Based on the leadership competencies that he researched, 80% - 90% of the distinguishing competencies in high achieving leaders are attributed to emotional intelligence, not IQ or technical skills. Paying attention to yourself will help you manage your relationships and will improve the quality of your life.

I welcome and encourage you to explore in more detail by completing a simple exercise below.

Think of your typical day in life. Now answer and write down the responses to the following five questions:

  • How many people on average do you interact with daily?

  • Who are the people you interact with daily?

  • Who was the last person you spoke with before you walked into your office this morning?

  • How did your interaction with this person impact you?

  • How do you think you impacted that person?

Whether you realize this or not, even a small interaction can have an impact on a person’s day. I tend to do social experiments at the airports or grocery stores. I put the biggest smile on my face and walk around making an eye contact and smile at strangers. At times I would say “Hi!” while passing strangers who happened to glance at me. The result? I get smiles back most of the time. I observed that this act of reciprocity made me feel more energized, and I am sure some people’s dopamine levels rose, even if it happened for just a few seconds.

My actions of spreading happiness require neither exorbitant costs nor time.

Just a warm smile and kind words every time an opportunity presents itself are powerful. I purposefully seek out these opportunities. It’s fruitless to sit and wait for something or someone to appear out of thin air. If you are not making an effort to find someone who can benefit from your kindness, you will never seize the perfect moment. Busy leaders can incorporate similar approach when interacting with their employees daily. While briskly walking through the dull corridors of a cubicle farm or a vibrant open-concept office, put a smile on your face and make eye contact. We can all change someone’s day for the better.

It is important to keep in mind what impact you are making on others as you go through your busy days. Slow down, take time for self-care, pay attention to those around you, and be the reason for someone else’ happiness not misery.

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