man reflecting on self-awareness and leadership


Self-Awareness and Leadership: The Ins and Outs

It’s critical that leaders understand the ins and out of self-awareness and leadership, especially if they want to have a positive impact.

Publish Date: March 11, 2020

Read Time: 8 min

Author: Diane Bock

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What people say:

“She has no idea how she’s coming across.”

“He’s incapable of seeing the negative impact he’s having.”

These are criticisms of managers who don’t detect their negative effects on others. Many of these managers are well-intentioned people, but they just can’t see outside of their own thinking. This is often called a blind spot. The reactions of others aren’t on their radar. They don’t realize their words or deeds cause serious problems. They are lacking external self-awareness. But this is just half of understanding self-awareness and leadership.

“She doesn’t know how talented she is.”

“He regrets his angry reaction. He’s not sure what actually bothered him.”

“She keeps changing her mind. She doesn’t know what she wants.”

These comments describe managers who lack insight about themselves. What’s inside them is uncharted territory. They are not in tune with their own values, emotions, and talents. Their understanding of what makes them tick isn’t sufficiently clear. What they need is more internal self-awareness. Internal self-awareness is the often-overlooked other half of what makes up self-awareness.

What the research says about self-awareness and leadership

Self-awareness is rising on the list of critical capabilities leaders need. This means having clear-eyed knowledge of one’s external impact and internal workings. 

No one argues against improving self-awareness. Especially when other people do it! But before we get too secure in our own sense of self-knowledge, consider the research. In a five-year study, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich found that 95 percent of people believe they’re self-aware. Yet only 10-15 percent actually are. Gulp.

For example, Dr. Eurich summarized research findings on the proven benefits of self-awareness in a Harvard Business Review article:

“Research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we’re more-effective leaders with more-satisfied employees and more-profitable companies.”

Yes, please! Those are all very good reasons to invest in a self-awareness upgrade.

Seeking external self-awareness

My earliest memory of gaining work-related external self-awareness was at age 22. I had just taken a corporate trainer job. I was practicing teaching a new financial product program in front of my supervisor. She had feedback for improvement. “You have to stop clicking that pen while you’re speaking. It’s distracting.” This was easy to fix. But inside my head I thought, “There’s a pen in my hand? I was clicking it? How did I not even hear it myself”? 

For positive feedback she said, “You have a warmth and naturalness in the way you speak. And you explain things clearly and logically.” That made me smile. And inside my head I also thought, “I have warmth? Warmth is good? Who knew!” and “Woo hoo! How soon can I tell my dad that someone thinks I’m logical?”

Feedback is key when it comes to self-awareness and leadership

There’s a lot of advice out there on becoming more externally self-aware. But it all boils down to one thing. Introspection doesn’t work. You need input from other people. When it comes to harmful blind spots, honest feedback from others is the only remedy.

People who are highly self-aware often report they went through some hard knocks before achieving real insight. For some it took the loss of important relationships or being fired to motivate them to seek input. Feedback about our cringe-inducing moments can be gut-wrenching. Yet, it can also lead to profound learning that is deeply rewarding and transformational.

Anyone planning to investigate the existence of a possible blind spot can take advice from this inspirational first-hand account. It’s titled “Facing My Blindspot: A Story of Becoming Self-Aware.”

Does seeking feedback sound daunting? If so, don’t dive into the deep end of the pool first. Walk into the shallow end to get your feet wet. First, learn about methods for giving and getting feedback in ways that don’t feel threatening. Then, think about how you can regularly seek feedback in small ways. 

For example, after leading a meeting, ask a couple of participants what they thought went well and what could be enhanced next time. Ask team members if they have ideas for improving work processes. Create an environment where feedback discussions are normal.

Seeking internal self-awareness

Next, let’s turn our attention to the lower drama of internal self-awareness. This is the aspect of self-awareness and leadership that is often overlooked. Here, introspection is allowed! Internal self-awareness is less about fixing flaws and more about defining, applying, and celebrating your best self. 

What you discover will enable greater authenticity and confidence, both in and out of the workplace. The insights you gain prepare you to be more intentional about your actions and decisions. In other words, it's this intentionality that can help you more reliably get the results you want.

Three good areas of focus for internal self-awareness are values, emotions, and talents.


Developing your personal code of values gives clarity about what is most important to you. It also enables you to see where your actions or decisions are in or out of alignment with what you care about. Do you have a nagging feeling or an area of dissatisfaction that is puzzling you? Your values can help explain such mysteries.

Knowing your top values can inform your life choices. Imagine the different decisions you might make if you valued a life of achievement compared to a life of community or a life of novelty? Those are just three examples from a large vocabulary that can be used to clarify values.


In considering emotions, a good starting point is to identify what situations trigger your strongest emotions. Under what circumstances will your emotions get away from you and result in behavior you regret? For some it’s a sensation of being disrespected, for others it’s unfairness or exclusion. That’s just to name a few, among many.

If you can identify a specific situation that gets your hackles up, you can form a plan to react in a better way. Response techniques can be learned to manage a triggering situation. For example, to regain calmness, you might have a mindfulness meditation ready on your smart phone. You might take a quick walk to avoid having an emotional outburst. You could also seek advice or try “positive reinterpretation” to imagine a more generous explanation for the triggering situation.


Talents are categories of contribution that have the most positive impact on personal, team, and organization success. For example, are you a data wizard, a social connector, a process master, or something else? If you know which talents come most naturally to you, you can be more intentional in how you apply them. When you know which talents are not your passion, you can then be more planful to involve others who have that talent. Armed with awareness of your talents, you can also seek more opportunities to use them.

The best part

On a commercial airplane, a flight attendant tells passengers what to do in an emergency. The instruction for oxygen is to put on your own mask first. The idea is that if you can breathe, you will remain conscious enough to help others. Without this instruction, a natural instinct for parents travelling with kids might kick in. Place children’s masks first! But not following the instruction could mean harm to both adults and children.

The oxygen mask analogy is apt for the topic of building self-awareness. Have you heard the phrase, “Learn to lead yourself before leading others.”? Having both external and internal self-awareness is a big part of self-leadership. Making sure that you are “conscious” of who you are and how you are perceived equips you to be a better leader. But only 10-15 percent of people have achieved this consciousness, so that means most of us need some help when it comes to self-awareness and leadership.

The best part about this leadership development need is that it’s naturally compelling. There’s no arm twisting to gain leaders’ interest. People want meaningful self-insights. Over-busy leaders hanker for time to reflect and discover personalized and actionable wisdom. 

They are energized by the clarity and confidence that comes from knowing themselves. Giving leaders a full understanding of self-awareness empowers them to reach their potential and increase their positive impact.

Learn more about self-awareness and leadership in DDI’s course, Leading Self: Turn Awareness into Impact.

Diane Bock is a senior consultant in DDI’s Product Management Group and is passionate about helping organizations drive business results through people. She likes food to be French, shoes to be comfortable, and wisdom to be cheeky.

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