I woke up this morning thinking about leadership. We’ve been told repeatedly that the best leaders are those who are most “self-aware”. Is that true? What does it mean?
It makes logical sense — to be a good leader you should know what you are capable of, assess your own strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and understand how your behavior impacts others. With knowledge about your limits, you can invite others with complementary experiences, skills and perspectives to expand your vision and help you make better decisions. When you’ve clarified what’s important to you, and know your own collaboration and management styles inside and out, you can attain the results you want more reliably.
And yet, while this self-awareness axiom seems self-evident, as I sat down to my morning cup of Earl Grey tea, I reflected on it further.
There’s more to self-awareness than just understanding how your past has shaped you, what’s working for or against you in the present, or even having clarity on the benefits and downsides of your style, personality and approach.
From my cliff-side living room window, the immense Pacific Ocean stretches out to a knife sharp blue horizon and as the caffeine kicks in, I take my thoughts deeper. I recently read the poet David Whyte’s essay on self-knowledge. He says:
“A detailed audit of the self is not possible and diminishes us in the attempt to establish it; we are made on a grander scale, half afraid of ourselves, half in love with immensities beyond any name we can give.”
Whyte also points out that human beings exist on a frontier. He loves the word frontier and uses it to describe the place where the known meets the unknown, where the domesticated and familiar meets the wild, mysterious and unnamed. When we venture onto that new frontier, leaving the comfort of the expected, sufficient self, we may encounter something that stimulates both excitement and fear. Who wants to be merely sufficient? We go beyond the quotidian patterns. It’s here that we may discover an unexpected new power and creativity in our leadership capabilities.
True self-awareness means holding both clarity about the known selfand a mindfulness regarding the potential of the self yet becoming.
The threshold between the Being and Becoming hosts a space for untying, unhinging the self we know into something else, something more.
We must sometimes allow ourselves to forget our known identification long enough to step into that new frontier. When we do, we detach from the inessential things and operate with a curious, beginner’s mindset that invites an intense aliveness accompanied by heightened and focused senses. We arrive in the now, open to the unknown future.
Have you ever been white water rafting or skydiving? When you go, especially the first time, you aren’t thinking about your past identity or what you might become. You’re not thinking of anything but what’s most essential, most present — what’s coming your way right now. When we emerge from a focused experience like this, we are changed — we are changing. We have allowed ourselves to move into a new territory, a new frontier for becoming.
Now, stop reading this article for a moment and consider:
Who are your favorite leaders from business, history, science, arts or any field?
Really think about it. Pick 3 people who inspire you and hold them in your mind.
Ok, now check to see if the following holds true for those people:
They’re not merely managers of the status quo. They know that leaders go first, putting past identity and old attachments aside. Leaders don’t lead us into a proven past, they lead us with their vision and passion into uncharted seas. This is what makes them threatening to the status quo, vulnerable to critics and exciting to their followers.
No one gives them a guidebook that tells them what unexposed parts of their character will be tested or what new skills they now lack that must be developed. They only have their courage and an awareness that they are “made on a grander scale” and are “in love with immensities beyond any name”.
They embrace the paradox inherent in life and leadership — the success paradox of big dreams vs. real world practicalities. They hold the paradox by knowing exactly what they can do but also being aware that they are capable of stretching into what they could do. They have a fear of failure, just like everyone else, but they have a greater fear of not trying, of never leaving the safety of the harbor to set sail and explore a new world. This is self-aware leadership.
Truly self-aware leaders embrace the frontier challenge of leadership.
Consider your list. Does the picture I painted of the truly self-aware leader hold up for your favorites? Some of the people on your list are probably world famous while some may be more personal. While not many of us may be written about in the history books, we can all be a leader in a world of our choosing…be that world little, big, far away, or close to home.
Lastly, check in with yourself…
Has there been a time when you were a truly aware leader? Have you been in love with immensities beyond any name? Are you now? Is it something you want?
The world is awaiting your decision.
Written by Dan & Meredith BEAM
We’re dedicated to screwing up the status quo to create value and enrich life.