Why NOT Knowing Yourself Makes You a Better Leader

I woke up this morning thinking about leadership.

We’ve been told repeatedly that the best leaders are “self-aware”. Is that true? What does it mean?

Basic self-awareness certainly matters — To be a good leader you should:

  • Know what you are capable of. Assess your own strengths, weaknesses, and motivations.

  • Understand how your behavior and management style impacts others.

  • Use knowledge about your limits to invite others with complementary experiences, skills and perspectives to expand your vision and help you make better decisions.

When you’ve clarified your own values and style, 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 cultivating clarity on how your past has shaped you, or understanding the impacts of your present style, personality and approach.

From my cliff-side living room window, the immense Pacific Ocean stretches out to a knife sharp blue horizon and 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 points out that each human being exists on a personal “frontier”. It’s the place where the known meets the unknown, where the domesticated and familiar meets the wild, mysterious and unnamed. When we leave the comfort of the expected, sufficient self, venturing out onto our frontier, we encounter things that stimulate 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 self and a mindfulness regarding the potential of the self yet becoming.

This frontier territory is the threshold between Being and Becoming, a space for untying and unhinging the self we know into something else, something more.

When we allow ourselves to forget our known identification we can step into that new frontier. When we do, we detach from the inessential things and operate with a curious, beginner’s mindset. This intense aliveness brings 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:

  1. They’re not merely managers of the status quo. Leaders go first, putting past identity and old attachments aside. They don’t lead us into a proven past, they lead us into uncharted seas with their vision and passion. This is why they’re threatening to the status quo, vulnerable to critics and exciting to their followers.

  2. No one gives them a guidebook to know what unexposed parts of their character will be tested or what new skills must develop. 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”.

  3. They embrace the paradox inherent in life and leadership — big dreams vs. real world practicalities. They hold the paradox by knowing exactly what they can do now but also being aware that they’re capable of stretching. They fear 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.

Consider your list of leaders. Does the picture I painted hold up for your favorites? Some of the people on your list are probably world famous while some may be personal. While not many of us will 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.

Now I invite you come to your own frontier:

1. Ask “Big Wicked Questions”

Challenge yourself to ask and answer questions of a grander scale. What is big, significant and important to you personally or professionally?

Big Wicked questions don’t have obvious answers. They’re sticky and tricky to answer. They have to be explored, innovated, and developed. A couple examples of Big Wicked Questions our organizational clients have asked (and are now successfully growing into their answers!):

  • How can we use organic gardening to cut ex-prisoner recidivism in half and help them develop the life they want?

  • How can we develop a world renown elementary-to-high school education for exceptionally gifted children that 17 Noble Prize Winners would say they wished they had experienced?

You probably already know or can figure out the big wicked questions that the founders of famous companies like Tesla, Google and Apple asked and answered…the questions are embedded in their histories and found in the countless interviews, articles and books written about them.

The point is to find the big wicked question that will stir your imagination and push your capabilities to your frontier edge and beyond. The question doesn’t always have to change the whole world, it just needs to change your world enough for you to experience the grander new territory.

2. Actively seek your edge

Take a risk — live into an experience that pushes you beyond what you thought were your limits. You might find great fun and you might find a greater you.

My wife has always been athletic and brave but she deeply feared scuba diving in the ocean. After training in swimming pools, she felt confident of her ability to do the technical skills of scuba diving but overcoming her ocean fear was another story. The day she did it, she was sobbing with fear on the boat ride out into Caribbean Sea where her first ocean dive was to take place. She refused to give into her fear and jumped into the water still sobbing. After spending just 20 minutes in the water she fell in love with scuba diving. We did 14 more dives that week because she loved it so much. Literally and symbolically that trip opened a beautiful new world for her.

We all set limits on what we think we can do. The only way to really know is to be a beginner once again with all of the fears that may bring up. Seek to find that limiting edge, test it, push beyond it and open to a whole new universe of possibilities. Whether the fear is a physical challenge or speaking in public, writing, singing, painting, starting a new business or taking on a professional challenge you’ve never done before, the ability to explore and discover the edge of your frontier is essential to growth. People interviewed toward the end of their lives say they most regret those times they failed to take a risk and experience a bigger awareness of who they could become.

Define your risk, fears and limits then in the popular vernacular of today, “lean into it”.

3. Expand, don’t contract

When people are challenged by life or when they age, some will start contracting their world and others will expand theirs. Be an expander.

The Great Depression was terrible. In a time when people were contracting and trying to hold onto what they had, several gutsy business leaders did the opposite. They saw opportunity where others saw only problems. They took big risks, invested in growth and built iconic companies. For example, the major cosmetics companies of today, like Estee Lauder and Revlon, began their growth into mega-businesses during this time of depression and contraction.

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, many companies started cutting back, reducing people, training and research. Others did the opposite. They used the time to rethink, reinvest, and drive business acceleration to achieve a future market advantage. Guess which ones came out ahead as the economy bounced back?

Expansion is not just about business growth. Expansion means to open your horizons, personal and professional. Life is meant to be creative and fully lived.

“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive” — Joseph Campbell

And as our David Whyte quote stated… “we are made on a grander scale”.

We can only know the dimensions of that scale when we continuously expand in our experiences, understanding and life enhancing value creation.

Written by Dan & Meredith BEAM

We’re dedicated to screwing up the status quo to create value and enrich life.