It’s vital for leaders to increase their self-awareness because their actions set the tone for what others do.  In addition, greater self-awareness leads to more effectiveness and success in most measures that people value. How do you know if this is a something that will help you?   If you answer yes to any of the following questions, self-awareness issues are likely involved.

  • Do you get stuck in negative cycles that are extremely difficult to move past?  
  • Are you encountering obstacles that keep sidetracking your progress?  
  • Do you have important relationships that continue in the same repetitive conflict?

Self-awareness is both the starting place and key ingredient for leadership and personal development.   Developing this skill is like developing any other skill; it takes practice. The practice involved is not technically advanced or complicated and doesn’t require any specific conditions.  It can be done anywhere, at any time you choose. As in other skills, the more you practice, the more it becomes a habit which makes it much easier since the habit takes over to replace much of the effort.  Below are the five key elements to develop this critical trait:

1. Develop the practice of mindfulness.  Mindfulness means being aware of what’s going on in your mind in the present moment.  Many people find it helps to create a safe and quiet space to practice.  Like most people, I’ve discovered that if I don’t carve out a place and time to do this, it probably won’t happen. This can be done throughout the day and it doesn’t require a lot of time.  Even a few minutes helps. Before I made this a habit, I found myself using the same excuses that I hear from others: “I don’t have time right now.” “This just doesn’t work for me.” “My mind just races, and I get antsy,” etc.  Sound familiar?

It’s helpful to be aware of these thoughts and feelings without pushing them away or using them as excuses for not making the effort.  Most people find that once this practice becomes a habit, they look forward to it and create this space anywhere and anytime. Especially when feeling stressed.  

2.  Quiet the mind and pay attention to whatever thoughts and feeling “flow in and out of your awareness.”  That’s it.   Focusing on your breathing is one easy way to start since it moves attention away from thinking and calms the natural tendency of the mind move frantically.  Here’s a simple analogy: When we look at an ocean, lake or pond after a storm, the sediment is stirred up, and we can’t see what’s in the water. After the sediment settles, we can see clearly.  A mind that’s filled with busy thoughts and emotions stirs up a lot of “sediment” that clouds our ability to “see” these thoughts and feelings. When we quiet our minds, clarity can be restored.

3.  Develop the ability to observe and accept whatever arises in your awareness.  This is difficult because the ego naturally rush in with inner voices of judgment.  Once these voices enter our awareness, your emotions are easily triggered and it’s difficult to see and accept things as they are.  For example, I have critical thoughts of myself and others over “little things” even though I know I should just “let go and move on.”  Also, at times I want to “get back at others” for perceived acts of disrespect, even very small ones. My ego wants to believe that I’ve “grown beyond this pettiness,”.  In truth, despite much progress, I haven’t yet reached that level.

The key is to witness your thoughts, emotions, and actions without the ego taking over and creating stories (both positive and negative) about ourselves and others.  This means looking AT your thoughts, feelings, and actions as being separate from who you are. Otherwise, it appears that they are who you are, which easily engages our judgments.  You know you’re on the right track when you accept negative thoughts and emotions with neither denial nor story-making about how you “should” think or feel. Having thoughts and feelings, we don’t want doesn’t make you good or bad, just human.

4.  Learn to be open to the feedback of others and even ask for feedback.  Let’s be real; I don’t like getting “negative feedback” from others.  How about you? In truth, other people can notice things about our behavior that we are blind to.  And we all have blind spots that can last a lifetime if we aren’t willing to listen openly to others and observe how they respond to us.  I’ve learned that the temporary sting of criticism is far less hurtful than continuously harming relationships.   The insights I’ve gained from this feedback have been priceless. Reminding myself that these imperfections don’t make me bad, just human has also helped me allow this feedback without excessive defensiveness. When we make it safe for others to share their feedback, our awareness can soar!  View feedback as a gift and make the most of what you receive.

5.  Create a process of reflection.  There’s an axiom that it’s not experience that causes us to learn it’s experience plus reflection that does.  This must be true since most of us have had the experience of continuing to do the same thing despite negative consequences.  I’ve done a lot of this in my life! Reflection allows us to re-evaluate our thoughts, feelings, actions, and consequences. This way we can consider different options in the future.  Most people find it helpful to “externalize” their thoughts and feelings by writing or discussing them with people they trust. When we externalize our thoughts and feelings, we can more easily “look AT them” as separate from who we are.  This provides a measure of clarity and objectivity that can make a key difference in what we learn. Having a process of reflection at the end of each day and reviewing at the end of each week and month, can be a powerful method to identify patterns and spark insights.

In summary, developing a high level of self-awareness is critical for leadership effectiveness and  quality of life. Since we’re all unique in terms of what specific practices will be most effective, I encourage everyone to experiment with different things in terms of mindfulness, feedback and reflection.  Develop habits that work best for you. You don’t need a large investment of time or trips to a mountaintop or monastery to develop in this area. Even small, regular efforts can have a major positive impact on every aspect your life.