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Leaders are self-aware

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

In the not-so-distant past, business was conducted in an emotion-free environment. Executives were as likely to display emotion as they were to tap dance on the roof of the CEO’s car. Now, the emotional nature of leadership – and of day-to-day working life – is routinely acknowledged.

Psychologist and former New York Times journalist Daniel Goleman has advocated the need for leaders to be emotionally intelligent (EI). IQ alone is not enough. Managers need to understand and manage their own emotions and relationships to be effective leaders. Goleman’s ideas on emotional intelligence build on the work of David McClelland, an American psychologist who helped establish competencies modeling and was Goleman’s mentor at Harvard, and Howard Gardner, the developmental psychologist and professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, who developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences.

In Primal Leadership Goleman advocates cultivating emotionally intelligent leaders. Goleman and co-authors Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee explain the four domains of emotional intelligence – self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management – and how they give rise to different styles of leadership. It is a leadership repertoire leaders can master and use to great effect.

Self-knowledge is a recurrent theme talking to leaders. ‘Know yourself, be yourself, look after yourself ’ is central. You can’t be yourself unless you know yourself, and you can’t sustain it, unless you look after yourself,’ advises Dame Mary Marsh.

Echoing these sentiments is the Tuck Business School’s Syd Finkelstein. ‘I talk about self-awareness,’ he says. ‘Working in a consulting capacity with a CEO or senior executive, the extent to which they’re self-aware is really remarkable; it comes out in a conversation so often. To me it’s really one of the most powerful leadership capabilities. That’s how I label it, to make it more practical to people, because self-awareness is a very touchy-feely type of idea once you get right down to it. But I call it a leadership capability.

‘The more anyone knows about how they think, how they behave, their own biases, the less likely they are to become slaves to that part of the brain where they just do what gut instinct tells them to do. That can get you in a lot of trouble, so self-awareness is a big differentiator, think again.’

Similarly, the first capability associated with the authentic leadership that Bill George identifies is self-awareness. As George notes, many leaders are so focused on career development that they neglect the challenging, sometimes painful, introspective exercise required to discover their authentic selves. They also equate success with external measures of success – such as share price, status, titles, money and fame – without considering whether those measures are truly meaningful for them. Through an honest examination of their lives, leaders become more vulnerable and humane, less unapproachable and remote.

True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership (2007) by Bill George with Peter Sims drew on interviews with 125 leaders, aged 23 to 93, selected mainly due to their reputations for authenticity and effectiveness as leaders. At the time it constituted the largest in-depth study of leadership development. The idea was to learn how these people developed their leadership abilities. Early on, however, the authors note the following: ‘Analyzing 3,000 pages of transcripts, our team was startled to see that these people did not identify any universal characteristics, traits, skills, or styles that led to their success’.

Instead, asserts George, their leadership abilities emerged from their life stories. ‘Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core. In doing so, they discovered the purpose of their leadership and learned that being authentic made them more effective,’ he says.

To begin the journey to authentic leadership, leaders must understand the story of their own life. This provides the narrative and context for authentic leadership, drawing on real-life events to inform leadership today and in the future.

Self-awareness is an integral part of authentic leadership. But it does not require years of psychoanalysis, say Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. It is about making a connection, knowing what and how much of yourself, your strengths and weakness and idiosyncrasies to reveal to others. The authentic leader cannot connect unless they know their followers well, their hopes, fears, interests and emotional state. For this leaders must get close. At the same time they may need to challenge or cajole, even reprimand, the same followers, and so it is useful to know how to create distance in these cases. Finally, to convey their vision and still appear authentic, leaders must choose the medium and moment that suits their personality and leadership style. And the message must be clear and easy for everyone to understand.

Interestingly, Goffee and Jones also detailed a number of popular conceptions about leadership which they believed were myths. One of those myths, contrary to what many leadership experts argue, is that everyone can be a leader. Not so, say Goffee and Jones. ‘Many executives don’t have the self-knowledge or the authenticity necessary for leadership,’ they say. And also many executives don’t want to be leaders anyway. But, for those that do, self-knowledge is key.


Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean and Diana Mayer, ‘Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,’ Harvard Business Review, February 2007.

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