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Published on April 23rd, 2015 | by Ben Sands

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Your First Responsibility As A Leader

By Ben Sands – for additional insights and ideas, join the free newsletter

A recent college graduate was traveling across Southeast Asia…

Outside a small village, he came upon an old man sitting by the side of the road.

He stopped and said to the man, “Old man, I have traveled far, seen many things and met many people. Can you tell me, what kind of people can I expect to find in this village?”

The man said to him in reply, “I’d be happy to tell you but first, tell me, what kinds of people have you met on your journey so far?”

The young traveler replied, “Oh, I have met the most awful people…people who are selfish and unkind to strangers; people who don’t care for themselves or one another; foolish young people…and old people who’s lack of hope depresses everyone they meet.”

The wise man replied, sadly “Yes,” he said “I know precisely the kind of people you speak of and, if you enter this village, I am afraid that those are exactly the kind of people you will meet.”

“I knew it” the traveler exclaimed, “it’s always the same!”

He kicked at the dirt and continued on his way, bypassing the town completely.

A few hours later, another young traveler came upon the old man.

“Kind sir, I have traveled far, seen many things and met many people. Can you tell me, what kind of people can I expect to find in this village?”

The man replied, “I’d be happy to tell you but first, tell me, what kinds of people have you met on your journey so far?”

“Oh, I have met the most amazing people. People who are kind and generous to strangers. People who care for one another like family. I’ve met young people, wise beyond their years and older people with a youthful passion for life that brings joy to everyone they meet. I have learned much from all of them.”

This time the wise man smiled as the traveller spoke and nodded in a knowing way.

“Yes,” he replied, “I believe I know exactly the kind of people you speak of and, I am happy to tell you, that if you go into my village I am certain that you will meet many more people like that.”

“Come then,” said the traveler “and introduce me to them.”

THE FIRST RESPONSIBILITY OF A LEADER: SELF-AWARENESS

The moral of this story, re-told to me by author Paul Smith on his podcast “Lead With A Story,” is that what we see in people is determined, in large part, by what we expect to find.

The implication for you, as a leader (or future leader) of others, is this: In order to get the best from our people, we must expect the best. And in order to expect the best, we must identify and mitigate the biases and beliefs that color our perception and judgment.

Your first responsibility as a leader therefore, is to become increasingly self-aware.

THREE STEPS TO ENHANCING SELF-AWARENESS

Simply defined, self-awareness is an understanding of your personal values, beliefs, motivations and fears. 

In practice, “highly self-aware” people are able to more accurately perceive others and understand how they are perceived by others.

Like other leadership competencies, self-awareness can be studied, taught and learned. Whether you are a new leader or a tenured one, here are three things you can do to increase your self-awareness and improve your leadership effectiveness:

1. Create Space 

A client of mine, the CEO of a large automotive joint venture, once lamented that it wasn’t until he attended an executive MBA program in his early 40s that he had the “space” to reflect on what he was doing and why. It was, as he put it, “too little, too late.”

Many people wait for a clear break in their calendar – an executive retreat, a personal vacation or even a formal “sabbatical” – to create this space. That’s OK…but a better, more sustainable solution is to work un-scheduled time into every day.

For example, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules between 90 minutes and two hours of what he calls “buffer” time each day. He places a series of 30 and 60-minute blocks on his Outlook calendar and uses the time to catch up, re-charge and “just think.” In his words, this buffer time is the “best investment” he makes in himself.

The first step in increasing your self-awareness: create space for reflection. Every day.

2. Discover Your Own Beautiful Dysfunction

When I work with struggling leaders, I often hear them say something along the lines of: if everyone were more like me, we’d be doing a lot better.

For better or worse, that’s never true.

In fact, ask the leader of any high-performing company and they will tell you that while their team shares many common beliefs and values, it’s their differences – in how they learn, think and act – that drives their creativity, innovation and problem-solving success.

That said, these differences can create challenges for a team lacking self-awareness. In order to effectively capitalize on that diversity, the team must be able to understand and manage the variations in how people like to communicate, make decisions and get things done.

Fortunately, there exist a number of useful tools such as the Myers-BriggsStrengthsFinder or CALIPER (to name just a few) that offer a structured and efficient way to learn more about how you like to give and receive information, interact with others and get things done.

We all have our own beautiful dysfunction. Regardless of your “strengths” or “personality type,” nobody’s perfect and everybody has something to offer when it comes to creating a high-performing team.

As a leader your first responsibility must be to identify and embrace your “beautiful” dysfunction and then help your team do the same.

3. Trust (Yourself), But Verify

Professors Robert Rubin and Eric Dierdorff studied the performance of over 350,000 executives, performing in teams, and found that 1) most of men and women are not very self-aware at work and 2) the cost of that lack of self-awarness is high.

Specifically, they observed that teams with lower levels of self-awareness (as measured by the disconnect between self-assessments and peer feedback) “made worse decisions, engaged in less coordination, and showed less conflict management.”

Per action item #2 above, self-assessments are a useful first step in the process of building self-awareness, but the critical next step is to verify your assumptions by gathering feedback and perspective from your peers.

Many organizations employ a process called the “360-Degree Review,” but I recommend something even more low-tech: ask others, often.

Specifically, ask the men and women with whom you spend the most time this simple question: How can I be a better…[manager, teammate, leader, friend, etc.]? 

The quality of the insight will vary but, if you ask this question often enough, you will develop a more objective understanding of who you are, how you work and what matters most to the people who matter most to you.

ARE THE RESULTS YOU’RE GETTING THE RESULTS YOU EXPECT?

Like the young travelers in our story, as a leader you must always remember that the results you get will be heavily influenced by the bias, perspective and beliefs you bring to your team.

As you continue on your leadership journey, prioritize the cultivation of self-awareness. Create space every day to reflect; use assessments to help you and your team better understand each other; and regularly pressure-test your perceptions by asking others their point of view.

Fair warning: If you are doing this right, you won’t always like what you hear or learn.

That’s why I characterize the development of self-awareness as a responsibility and not simply an objective or “to-do.”

It takes time and energy but, in the end, the positive impact that heightened self-awareness can have on your performance – and that of those you lead – will make it worth the effort.

What are you doing today to increase your self-awareness? What have you learned about yourself that surprised you?


About the Author

Ben Sands is an author, coach, and the founder of Regret Free Life. He writes about careers, money, leadership and how to make decisions you won't regret.


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