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“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Victor Frankl

One question I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about after a decade of reading leadership books and attempting to apply them to my life—What are the most important leadership traits?

There are lots of overlapping themes and clear traits required for good leadership, but what’s at the very top of the list?

A 2012 survey of 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council rated self-awareness as the most important capability for leaders to develop. MIT’s Sloan School of Management seems to agree with them.

This makes a lot of sense to me.

The ability to more accurately perceive oneself by taking in feedback from our relationships, may be the single best growth tool we have.

Without such a skill, it seems almost impossible to grow or evolve.

How can you change something if you don’t acknowledge it exists?

Most brain research supports the idea that we have a very strong tendency to look for information that confirms what we already believe (confirmation bias). This—of course—includes things that we believe about ourselves.

When was the last time you asked someone for critical feedback about the way you behave in relationships?

Most of us don’t naturally seek that out on a regular basis. I know I don’t. And depending on your attachment history, it might feel like emotional death to learn things about yourself that are unpleasant to hear.

This unfortunate flaw can be enhanced in leaders.

Top executive coach and UCLA organizational psychologist Marshall Goldsmith suggests that because leaders hold so much power over people’s lives, if they are not really active in seeking feedback, they become less and less likely to get honest feedback as they ascend the corporate ladder.

In this scenario, the leader’s ideas are very rarely challenged, which often results in the leader strengthening their conviction that their own ideas are better than others. Employees may come to fear hurting the leader’s feelings. Then they stop bringing information to the leader that doesn’t fully support the leader’s viewpoint. And we know that successful leaders need constant input from the front lines in order to make better organizational decisions and maintain the trust of the team.

Goldsmith therefore suggests that great leaders must work really hard on getting regular feedback to compensate for their weaknesses and blind spots.

In his wonderful book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, he describes 21 key skills that are often lacking in high level executives.

I’ve taken a deep dive into the subject of the unconscious recently, and I’ve come to think that most of us are living a large portion of our lives unconsciously reacting to life or relationships.

We aren’t choosing our actions nearly as consciously as we would like to believe.

If you don’t believe me, check out this 2015 article in Time Magazine entitled “Why You’re Pretty Much Unconscious All The Time.”

Many of the things we do are unconscious attempts to manage anxiety, or attempts to meet deep needs. Habits like people pleasing, perfectionism, or work addiction all fall into this category and begin early in childhood as ways of behaving in relationships.

I recently came across a great Buddhist mantra that underscores the importance of self-awareness—“The greater the awareness, the greater the choice.”

If we lack awareness, we are very unlikely to make new and different choices.

And leaders, parents, or spouses who fail to cultivate self-awareness, will eventually become ineffective, get worse results, and experience greater suffering in relationships.

But not all hope is lost.

There are things we can do to develop a more conscious approach to our choices.

Turn information into action

7 Ways to Increase Self Awareness:

  1. Ask for feedback! The simplest way to get feedback is simply to make a habit of regularly asking. It’s easy to underestimate how difficult this is. In my experience and observation, this takes enormous emotional courage. Try asking a trusted friend, a colleague, or your spouse. Don’t start with people likely to be harsh. Look for kind people that are likely to tell you some uncomfortable truth.
  2. Do a 360 anonymous survey on yourself. I’ve given out 7 anonymous surveys to my coworkers to assess me over the years. Each time it has gotten easier, but I was literally crushed by the feedback for a month the first time I did it! It showed me things about myself I’d rather not believe. The feedback must be anonymous because your team and coworkers simply aren’t likely to give honest feedback unless its anonymous. I will attach a sample survey I created with some colleagues based on Goldsmith’s work. You can use this for free if you wish.
  3. Mindfulness meditation and prayer. Meditation and prayer has been used for centuries as a way to improve self-awareness. Watching our thoughts or asking God for insight is enormously beneficial.
  4. Get feedback from a trusted mentor or coach. Bosses, mentors, and coaches are good places to look for feedback. Make sure it’s someone you trust who has your best interest in mind.
  5. Psychotherapy. Therapy is obviously another great way to increase self-awareness.
  6. Personality tests and assessments. These can also be very useful to uncover blind spots, personality traits, and habits of mind. A good free one is the Saboteur test. I don’t believe any single test measures everything about us, but approaching them with an open mind is usually helpful in learning about yourself.
  7. Pause before responding. This is key. If you notice yourself feeling flooded by emotions with physical reactions in your body (like sweating, increased tension, elevated heart rate) take a few breaths or a break before responding. Take the time to reflect on how you are reacting, so that you can work to avoid an emotional reflex and respond more consciously.

Marshall Goldsmith likes to say, “you can either look good or get good, but you can’t do both.” People concerned with looking good may avoid self-awareness and will never reach their true potential. People concerned with increasing self-awareness will “get good” faster even if they don’t “feel good” much of the time. In the long run, they will outperform (at work and at home) those who avoid self-awareness practices.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed articles, check out The Next Peak Podcast where Parker co-hosts every other episode.

Want more? Suggested Resources

  1. What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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