Self-Awareness Powers Great Leadership


October 13, 2013

I’ve been thinking lately about why some leaders fail.  There are many theories about the causes and what can be done to improve the leadership abilities a person has.  There are also theories that focus on the idea that leadership abilities are something that individuals are born with, that they are innate.  Either way, companies promote people into leadership roles who either do not have the skills they need or the skills they have are not strong enough to be successful.

In my career I’ve had the same conversation many times.  It goes like this:

Manager– “Jane Doe is not leading her team effectively.  She is not respected, she alienates her staff, she’s too hard (or too soft) on her staff, she does not understand business metrics and how to meet them, and on and on.  What training do we offer that I can send her to?  I think she needs leadership training.  I think she needs training on how not to alienate her staff.”

HR– “Well, we offer Leadership 101, How to Give Constructive Feedback, yadda yadda yadda.”

Manager– “Great.  Let’s send her to XYZ training.”

End of story?  No.  Six months later, her boss is back and says she has not improved.  She is still having the same issues. So, what went wrong?  We talked about it and wrote in her plan that she needed training and,  she attended training.  She should have been a success story, right?

Sound familiar?

Companies today tend to put all their eggs in one basket and focus predominantly on training.  But is that the best strategy?  Isn’t on-the-job learning the best way to teach someone how to lead?

So, I’ve been thinking and researching why this is not working.  My theory is that the real problem is not any of the leadership skills the employee lacks.  The root problem is that the employee lacks self-awareness and without THAT, this employee can attend training ever day and still never improve. If this manager does not perceive that she has issues dealing with her staff, then sending her to training to work on that will just not sink in.  So, how do we break this cycle?

We need to take it back to square one.  Self-awareness training.  Make employees go through training that will show them where the deficiencies lie.  Make them talk about it.  Make them discuss whether they realize these are deficiencies.  Do they agree?  Disagree?  Without that piece, you may never break through, so that later, when they understand what they need to work on and they have buy in that it is holding them back in their performance.  Then, the company needs to:

Tie it to accolades

Tie it to responsibility

Tie it to money

Then, and only then will the leadership training begin to stick.  Otherwise, you may be throwing away your company’s training dollars for no reason.  Think about it.


  • Morning Trish, thanks for making me think so early in the morning. Let me throw out a few thoughts. . . not everyone is (or wants to be) self aware. The motivation for that comes from within and while training/coaching/mentoring can awaken it, I don’t think training can make people self aware if they don’t want to be.

    Tying accolades, money and responsibility to behaviors can catch people’s attention but tie it to a new found sense of self awareness and you could end up with nothing more than a bunch of self-proclaimed “enlightened” souls who don’t perform any differently.

    What can organizations do with people in leadership positions who refuse to be self-aware? Is that a do-not-pass-go trait in a leader?

    Do I see an HREvolution 2010 track in your future?

  • Trish, i’m with you all the way. If a leader is not prepared to continue to question their own motivation and actions, cannot see their participation and the affect it is having on their followers/employees, then all the leadership training will result in nought.
    Great stuff.

    • @Suzy- Thanks for reading and commenting. In my experience, all good (aka effective) leaders continue to question themselves. I think that is how they keep growing.

      @Lisa- Now you’re making ME think early in the morning. I agree, not everyone wants to be self aware. I guess my point is, if we can somehow figure that out before we promote someone into leadership, we could save ourselves a great deal of time and money. When a leader does not have the motivation to really know where their weaknesses lie, no amount of other types of “leadership training” can work. I think there should also be a differentiation made between people who are good at leading PEOPLE and those who can lead PROJECTS. Many people become leaders and are expected to lead and manage people but they do not have the desire nor the skills to do it. It will definitely be a hot topic at HRevolution 2010.

  • Trish-I love this topic! In my experience, companies do a poor to mediocre job identifying and distinguishing the competencies reqiured to lead others from those required to perform as an individual contributor. Thus successful individual contributors are typically first in line for promotion to leadership positions. When recruiting externally, the performance in one environment (good manager at XYZ Corp.) does not always translate to good performance in another environment (good manager at My Corp). For me, the issue at hand is less about self awareness and more about organizational awareness.

  • Great post. This is what led to the development of multi-rater feedback…trying to give unaware managers some understanding of how they impacted those around them. Agree with the comments above; some folks don’t care and think they can just plow ahead. This should be a career derailer, but some organizations will let talent impact others negatively, if they are really good at certain tasks. For baseball fans, this is “Let Manny be Manny.” If you are trying to build a culture, however, this is short term thinking.

  • Trish, I agree totally. Identifying the right people for leadership is critical. The wrong people are problematic on so many fronts.

  • Trish – Another salute the Self-Awareness flag that you raise. Without it the Emperor is naked, doesn’t know it, and fails to remedy the situation by getting dressed.

    On the more serious side, when a client’s assessment results indicate that he/she rates himself higher than others across the board, I see red flags.

    Willingness to look at Self precedes ability. I’ve learned to declare up front in the coaching agreement that if there is a problem in either willingness or capability for change I will talk to the client first. If nothing changes I then recommend ending the coaching engagement. It is not a good investment of the company’s money, the client’s time or mine.

    I’ve appreciated a number of your posts and will return.

    Anne Perschel aka@bizshrink

  • Hi Trish,
    As with the others, I couldn’t agree more. I came across your blog looking for reinforcement in this area to help educate the “blind”. We have developed an holistic experiential program that specifically focuses on Self Intelligence, launched last year in New Zealand.
    In a previous business we spent a good part of it working with senior exec. and management teams and the lack of self awareness was rampant. It seems to be the higher up the rank the worse it got.
    The other interesting point is that sometimes it is the senior manager that is saying that others have the problem with self awareness when it is they themselves who have the problem.
    So 6 years ago we started to research and develop the JOLT Challenge program.
    Self awareness also tends to get bundled in with Emotional Intelligence thanks to Daniel Goleman, which is unfortunate as it is more than that.
    It is amazing what self awareness combined with self management tools can do. So far we have broken down silos, improved engagement, improved wellness, taken the dis out of disfunctional teams, enhanced leadership capability. The list goes on, yet we are still confronted with with barriers in organisations, not to mention gate keepers and red tape. If you have any knowledge on studies done in this area I would love to read them. We are using the same program with 18-25year old cancer sufferers to do a randomised study on improved quality of life which should be interesting.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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