My niece was about three, running through the mall with me in hot pursuit. When I caught up to her, I dropped to a squat so that I would be at eye level when I spoke. “How many times do I have to tell you…” I began. Had I been in a cartoon, it was at that point in the sentence that a light bulb would have appeared above my head. I stopped speaking and just looked at her. I was no longer me; I was my mother, starting yet another sentence with that phrase. I was horrified at the realization I had become my mother, but I also remembered how I used to feel when she asked what I thought at the time was a pretty stupid question.
For some reason, that incident remains one of the strongest memories I have of coming face to face with myself in an unexpected way. I became aware of how I saw things, and the ways in which I reacted, in a way that I hadn’t been before that trip to the mall. Of course, as is true of all knowledge, having the knowledge is one thing; doing something with it is another. I used that moment to change how I interacted with my nieces. Instead of simply repeating what my parents had done, I started thinking about how I felt as a child, how I wanted my nieces to feel, and how there might be better ways to make my point. Sure, I still did things imperfectly, but at least they were my imperfections.
I was prompted to think about all that again recently while reading a New York Times interview with Autumn Manning, CEO of YouEarnedIt.com, a software company. In discussing leadership lessons, Ms. Manning says, “To be an effective leader, you have to have self-awareness. I’ve always known that.” She then proves that she knows what she’s talking about by offering a concrete example. “I have a lot of intensity and a lot of passion,” she says. “And that can be my greatest strength, but it can also be a big weakness of mine. If applied the wrong way, it breeds the wrong behavior, like people not speaking up because I am so passionate and so intense about what I believe. So I have to go out of my way to communicate my intentions.”
I admire the way that Ms. Manning uses the knowledge of herself to modulate her own behavior. In my experience, that sort of effort is rare. I’ll go out on a limb and say that most leaders aren’t particularly self-aware to begin with. If they are, too often they squander a leadership opportunity by directing the information outward, rather than inward. We’ve all been on the receiving end of how that works: “That’s just who I am. Deal with it.” Well, sure, in some ways it would be easier to just go through life being ourselves and expecting everyone else to accommodate. It would also, ultimately, be self-defeating. Ms. Manning understands that. She wants a freer expression of ideas in her company, and she promotes more of that by simultaneously recognizing and setting aside her position power and her personality to encourage dialogue.
Adjusting our behavior becomes even more important, of course, when we are working not just across personalities but across cultures. That can only happen when we are also self-aware of the cultural norms that shape our perspective and behavior. Suppose, for example, that we live in a culture in which relationships are more important than time. Within that culture, we naturally honor the relationship (we might be late for an appointment because we ran into a long-time associate) and no one would question the decision. Within that culture, there’s no real need to be aware of the cultural norm. Outside the culture is a different story. If we’re doing business in a country in which being late is considered rude, we are more likely to be successful if we’re aware of our cultural norm and, if necessary, to alter our behavior to accommodate the other culture. If we don’t, the success of the meeting rests entirely on the other person (or people) making the effort to accommodate. Why impose that burden or take that risk?
Whatever our business goals, we’re more likely to achieve them when we meet people halfway. That’s hard to do without self-awareness, which is one reason it’s surprising (and disappointing) that true self-awareness is so rare among leaders. Ms. Manning has clearly taken a hard look in the mirror. Have you?
For more than 20 years, Allan Halcrow has been helping leaders at all levels (and their employees) get the edge they need to reach their full potential. As a facilitator, trainer, consultant and coach, he work with individuals and teams to develop leaderhip skills, drive change initiatives, and improve their performance management processes. He is the co-author of several books, the most recent being "The Influential Leader: Break Through to Greatness".