International Head of Leadership Development DLA Piper
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Connected leadership: Holding up the mirror to develop self-awareness

3rd Dec 2018
International Head of Leadership Development DLA Piper
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Surreal enigmatic picture on canvas
Surreal enigmatic picture on canvas

In today's fast-paced, ever-evolving business world, self-awareness is a must-have leadership skill. Here are four ways L&D can support their leaders with 'holding the mirror up' to better connect with themselves.

I recently made the case that, to thrive in the VUCA environment, a new style of leadership is required. Although characterised by a range of attributes, at its heart, this new style of connected leadership requires a willingness to venture into potentially uncomfortable territory – to self-reflect and commit to regularly ‘holding the mirror up’ in pursuit of greater self-awareness and personal connection.

Complexity, and the relentless pace of business, arguably requires leaders to be more self-aware, behaviourally flexible and agile than ever before. Ironically, business pressures have led many leaders to divert their attention away from the ‘self,’ leaving them vulnerable to default decision making, reliance on overplayed strengths and inauthenticity.

This cognitive trade-off has long-term consequences not just for business results but for the engagement of talent and the wellbeing of leaders themselves. In a frenetic world that requires greater self-understanding to make sound decisions, leaders must be prepared to recognise that their greatest challenge is, in Socrates’ words, to ‘know thyself.’

Worryingly, research suggests that less than a quarter of leaders have high levels of self-awareness (despite thinking otherwise), which opens up a myriad of potential personal and business risks.

Self-awareness – the very cornerstone of connected leadership – is no longer negotiable. It is the very essence of effective leadership and deserves significant investment if leaders are to successfully manage the plethora of challenges they face today.

So what can leaders do to develop their self-awareness and how can we support them? Below are four key areas to focus on.

1. Mindfulness

Regardless of leadership experience, ongoing dedication to mindful practice is vital. While theoretically linked to leadership outcomes, the latest research (see Baron 2018) suggests that non-judgemental observation of the present increases behavioural flexibility and enhances self-awareness.

Without question, mindfulness gives leaders an agile edge – promoting better decision making in line with personal values. Moreover, mindfulness also reduces rumination, promoting quality sleep and enhanced wellbeing. In a world of complexity the ability to step back and experience in-the-moment leadership can only be a good thing.

Authenticity, a hallmark of a self-aware connected leader, requires a deep understanding of personal values and the impact they have on decision making.

Coaches and business partners can play a key role by helping leaders develop a personal commitment to everyday mindfulness rather than attendance at one-off workshops – the approach that permeates organisations today.

2. Feedback

Leaders need to accept that the way they view themselves may be at odds with the way others see or experience them. In theory, the most obvious way to close this gap is to seek out regular feedback.

In practice though, many leaders engage in a deliberate strategy of feedback avoidance to protect themselves from the discomfort that occurs when other people’s perceptions differ from their own.

Organisations that are serious about developing self-aware leaders should facilitate regular 360 degree feedback surveys (or conversations!). A robust 360 tool can be incredibly powerful if the leader approaches it with a growth mindset accompanied by a facilitated debrief with a trusted expert.

To lead truly effective debrief conversations, coaches and business partners should ensure they have: a thorough understanding of typical personality based reactions; strategies to deal with over and under estimators; and a sound understanding of goal setting theory and behavioural change models.

Trusted partners should also encourage leaders to commit to action, not just rumination, and to observe the impact of experimentation on the system around them.

3.  Values

Authenticity, a hallmark of a self-aware connected leader, requires a deep understanding of personal values and the impact they have on decision making. Leaders who reflect on, and can articulate the role that their values play at work, act with greater behavioural integrity, which in turn engenders employee trust and a range of positive employee outcomes.

Interestingly, the most effective connected leaders recognise when they’ve acted out of integrity – when their values, promises and actions simply don’t match – and are brave enough to acknowledge this without excuse or judgement.

Self-awareness, and a willingness to regularly hold the mirror up, are not only hallmarks of connected leadership, but critical for business success today.

Paradoxically, true authenticity requires us to acknowledge our frequent inauthenticity, which although rarely acknowledged, can engender an environment where vulnerability is seen as an asset not a weakness.

Coaches and business partners can play a role here by broaching the topic of values and being brave enough to give in-the-moment feedback when a leader acts out of integrity. Trusted advisors can also encourage leaders to answer questions about ‘who they are’ and ‘what they stand for’ as well as reflect on the impact of incongruence between stated values and values in use.

4. Emotions

Emotions have a profound impact on organisational and employee outcomes but are rarely discussed in the workplace or in the context of leadership. Connected leaders are deeply cognisant of their emotions and have a thorough understanding of the footprint they leave on others, both in and outside of the organisation.

To develop emotional awareness, leaders should be encouraged to consider the impact of emotions on the way they ‘show up to work,’ their decision making, wellbeing and on colleagues and team members.

Coaches and trusted business partners can play a pivotal role by helping leaders reflect on, and observe, the impact that their feelings have at work day-to-day and in the moment. Trusted partners can also help leaders understand the importance of psychological safety and identify ways to create an environment that gives as much credence to emotions as it does to facts.

Encouraging leaders to ask employees how they feel in the moment or in relation to a project, without fear of consequence, can be liberating and trust building for both parties. Similarly, leaders that share how they feel, authentically expressing positive and negative emotions without judgement, create deep and strong connections with those around them. Stepping up to the looking glass

Self-awareness, and a willingness to regularly hold the mirror up, are not only hallmarks of connected leadership, but critical for business success today. Despite this, research shows us that the vast majority of leaders simply aren’t self-aware or willing to prioritise enough personal resource to connect with their self. Perhaps this is because, as Stephen Covey once rightly in First Things First said, ‘self-awareness involves deep personal honesty, it comes from asking and answering hard questions.’

Regardless of how difficult our pursuit of self-awareness might be, if we are serious about leadership then it’s time for us to take action and step up to the looking glass.


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