Leadership and Sense of Self

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Contemporary leadership literature favors bodies of thought emphasizing knowing and understanding followers, addressing their needs, and conducting the leadership role in a selfless manner. These are sound principles. Leadership is an other-oriented enterprise. Selflessness is preferable to selfishness. While most leaders have strong egos, narcissistic personalities are rarely recognized for excellence in leadership.

Strategic introspection, which consists of purposely examining one’s own motivations, personality traits, strengths, weaknesses, and emotional triggers, is a crucial element of leadership development, In fact, sense of self should be the first step in leadership development. It is common to hear leaders ask “Why does my staff or team member behave this way?” It is less common to hear leaders ask “How does my behavior manifest in this organization?”

It’s Me, Not You?

Who among us is free of emotions and experiences that can sabotage our own effectiveness? Or, more casually stated, if everyone around me is annoying, it’s probably me, not them. The bottom line is that serving others begins with a thorough understanding of self.

Understanding self is not a new concept. Warren Bennis wrote of management of self as one of four foundational leadership skills. The popular concept of emotional intelligence is rooted in understanding one’s own emotions and how they impact others. These skills are often referred to (slightly disparagingly) as soft skills. These soft skills, though, prove surprisingly hard for many of us to master.

Find Your Spots

To begin the hard work of better understanding and managing your sense of self, examine both brights spots and dark clouds in your day. Do positive outcomes more closely correlate with a specific emotional state? Do problematic outcomes correlate with a different emotional state? Can staff or team members predict with high reliability your response in a given situation? Does that response give them energy or take energy away from the task? Are you able to anticipate situations that may bring out your less productive self? Are you able to prepare for those situations and mitigate negative behavior? Do you do a post-mortem after both routine and crucial encounters? Was I at my best? If so, why? If not, why not? How can I learn from the experience and replicate the good while adjusting the bad?

Seek Feedback (More Than Once)

As part of your quest to be a superior leader, you also must go beyond self-assessments. Ask others for honest feedback in a safe space. Engage in 360 evaluation. Consider how your personal life and professional life merge. Few people are different at home than they are at work. Your emotional triggers don’t stay at home in the morning or remain in the office in the evening.

Understanding yourself is the first step to effectively leading others. Understand that developing your leadership ability and the ability of the people around you is a process that is never completed, not a task to be checked off your to-do list.

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