Why self-awareness is an essential trait for every leader

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The other day I facilitated a workshop for a group of internal recruiters and talent acquisition specialists. They worked for a range of different organisations and each had between 3 – 5 years’ experience. 

As we reached the end of one of the modules, I asked the group if they had any questions. 

When one of the participants raised his (Zoom) hand, I assumed he was going to ask me to go back over some of the specific content I’d just covered. But instead, he asked, “What’s the strangest interview question you’ve ever asked a candidate?” 

After 25+ years ‘in the game’, I like to think that I never made a point of asking ‘strange’ questions. But I did tell the group that, as a candidate, I remember once being asked by a recruiter, “What 90’s rock song lyrics can you relate to most, and why?”. Incidentally, that same recruiter then went on to ask me what time I set my alarm for every morning!  


The group then shared a few other examples of questions that didn’t appear to truly assess a candidate’s behaviours, competencies, values, or previous experience in any way before another participant chimed in with, “And how stupid is the question, ‘What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?’” 

Before answering, I thought carefully about how I would phrase my response so as not to offend him in any way. 

“Whilst it’s certainly not a competency-based or behavioural-based question, and whilst there are no right or wrong answers to it, depending on the seniority or maturity of the candidate in front of you, and the level of the role you’re recruiting for, it can actually be quite a good question to gauge a candidate’s level of self-awareness.” 

“What do you mean?”, another participant asked. 

I then went on to explain the importance of being able to assess self-awareness and the other core competencies linked to Emotional Intelligence, particularly when it comes to interviewing candidates for leadership roles. 

In a recent article, we shared these core competencies at a high level. 

  • Self-awareness 
  • Self-regulation  
  • Empathy  
  • Social skills  
  • Motivation  

In this piece, we’ll be doing more of a deep dive, and shining the spotlight on self-awareness, often cited as the most important capability for a leader to develop. Self-awareness is about knowing your emotions, strengths, weaknesses and values, and their impact on others.  

While studies show that people with a high level of self-awareness typically become better leaders, research states that while most leaders will say they are self-aware, self-awareness is, in fact, a very rare quality. 

As opposed to what time you set your alarm for in the morning, a more appropriate question to ask yourself might be, ‘what makes you jump out of bed in the morning’.

Understanding your emotional triggers (what really makes you tick, what energises you and what drains you), along with how you manage yourself in certain situations, are all glimpses into your level of self-awareness. You might also want to ask yourself how (and perhaps more importantly why) you react the way you do in these situations. Are you comfortable setting boundaries and perhaps even saying no if it means preventing a scenario that might trigger a negative reaction? 

Empathy, curiosity, and humility are three more distinct traits of self-awareness. We’ll be fleshing out more about empathy in a future post since as we indicated earlier, it’s one of the key components of Emotional Intelligence. We’ve also spoken about the power of curiosity for a leader in the past. Remember curiosity is a fundamental leadership trait and can be directly attributed to higher levels of engagement and collaboration. Curious leaders are on a journey of continuous self-improvement which, by default, makes them more authentic. In a sense, curiosity could be linked to humility. 

Humility is about being comfortable with the fact that you don’t know everything that there is to know; about yourself, about those around you, and about the environment in which you are operating.

Owning up to this could certainly trigger elements of vulnerability, but this in itself is a huge part of self-awareness. And just like curiosity, humility also has direct links to self-improvement and a growth mindset.

One of the easiest ways to demonstrate a quest for self-improvement is by asking for feedback. How comfortable are you asking for feedback? Not just from those who might sit above you in the organisational structure. But from those reporting to you. If soliciting feedback comes naturally for you, this is usually a sign of a fairly high level of self-awareness. However, for many (leaders in particular), it is not always easy. 

Being comfortable asking for feedback from your team members or giving your team permission to provide you with regular feedback can help infiltrate the blind area of the Johari Window (which we referenced in a previous article). By being vulnerable and genuinely asking, “what could I be doing differently?”, one of your team members might suggest that you be less autocratic, or that you let the group decide on an approach rather than just telling them what to do.   

The experts suggest that one of the key indicators of low self-awareness is being unaware of your personal blind spots (another reference to the Johari Window), which can limit the way you act, react, or behave in certain situations, and in turn, limit your effectiveness as a leader. 

These experts also refer to two broad types of self-awareness. 

  • Internal self-awareness: How clearly you see your own values, passions, aspirations, fit with your environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviours, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. 
  • External self-awareness: Understanding how other people view you, in terms of those same factors listed above. 
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Are you an ‘Introspector’, a “Seeker’, a ‘Pleaser’, or are you truly self-aware? 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders become more self-aware. 

Oh … and for anyone curious as to what 90’s rock song lyrics back in the day I could relate to most? At the time I was going through an Oasis phase, so my answer was unashamedly “Wonderwall”. When I was asked why, I looked the recruiter in the eye, and said, “Because ‘all the roads we have to walk are winding; and all the lights that lead us there are blinding’”. 

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