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Updated Jan 29, 2024

Want to Be a Good Leader? Step One: Know Thyself

Self-awareness is a key trait of successful leaders. These tips will help you become more self-aware and benefit your career.

Tom Anziano headshot
Tom Anziano, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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What is the most important characteristic of a leader? Some might say it’s integrity. Others might say it’s being a good motivator. However, psychologist and author Sherrie Campbell, author of Loving Yourself: The Mastery of Being Your Own Person, believes self-awareness is the key factor in leadership success.

What is self-awareness?

Self-awareness is the ability to monitor your emotions and reactions. It lets you know your strengths, weaknesses, triggers, motivators and other characteristics. Being self-aware means taking a deeper look at your emotions, why you feel a certain way and how your sentiments could turn into reactions.

Practicing self-awareness allows you to react better to situations or people who might set you off, which is a healthy skill to cultivate ― especially as a leader. When you’re aware of your emotions and how you handle them, you’re better equipped to process and work through them, avoiding unnecessary conflict. This ability will also help you set a good example for your team and make them more comfortable approaching you with questions or concerns. 

Even if you’re not where you want to be as a leader, developing self-awareness and acknowledging areas of leadership weakness is the first step.

How important is self-awareness in leadership and business?

Without self-awareness, leaders can appear arrogant. If you can’t be personable or know when you cross a line, how can you lead a company?

The need for self-awareness also extends to other business situations. Consider how crucial self-awareness is when giving sales pitches, trying to close deals or handling constructive criticism. If you’re unaware of how you’ll react to a situation or can’t prevent negative reactions, you could get yourself in trouble.

Self-awareness is also a crucial presentation skill. Many people get nervous when delivering presentations, speeches or even notes at a meeting. Self-awareness can help. If you use too many filler words during presentations, practice your presentation and have someone clap every time you use a word you want to avoid. If you tend to sway or pace around while presenting, limit your ability to move by sitting at the table with your client or using a podium.

Did You Know?Did you know
Coping mechanisms developed in childhood can prevent you from achieving career goals. By becoming aware of these automatic reactions, you can opt out of using them when they provide no benefit.

What are self-awareness skills?

In addition to being aware of your emotions, self-awareness involves knowing how you will react to others.

“Self-awareness keeps us grounded, attuned and focused,” Campbell wrote. “When leaders are grounded, they can be efficient and deliberate in staying on task and being attuned to those around them. Leaders who can control their minds and emotions help to guide those around them to develop their own self-knowledge and success.”

Consider the following crucial self-awareness skills:

  • Empathy: When you fine-tune your self-awareness abilities, you will become more empathetic, thanks to heightened emotional intelligence.
  • Adaptability: If you know how you will react, you could avoid tough situations by going on a walk or taking a few deep breaths.
  • Confidence: By accepting and even embracing your flaws, needs and strengths, you will increase your ability to be vulnerable, allowing for healthier business relationships. Maintaining confidence is key to success.
  • Mindfulness: When you’re self-aware, you become more mindful of the present moment, allowing yourself to take situations as they happen instead of dwelling on the past or projecting into the future.
  • Patience: While your immediate reaction might be to scold an employee for a mistake or take out your frustrations on your team, self-awareness will help you practice patience, even in the face of conflict.
  • Kindness: Kindness is achievable when you put aside your feelings to support another person. Even if you’re having a bad day, being self-aware and realizing your workers are also human beings with similar struggles can help you be more sympathetic.
The right leadership language can help convey patience and kindness to your team. Your words and phrases can significantly impact your team's morale.

Tips for becoming more self-aware

Becoming more self-aware isn’t always easy but it can help you become a better leader. Here are 10 tips for improving self-awareness:

  1. Keep an open mind: When you can regulate your emotional world, you can be more attuned to others’ emotions. Successful leaders must be curious about new people and all they have to offer. Keeping an open mind shows that you can be a team player and don’t need to be number one all the time. The more open you are to others, the more creative an entrepreneur you will become.
  2. Be mindful of your strengths and weaknesses: Self-aware individuals know their strengths and weaknesses and can work from that space. Being mindful of your strengths and weaknesses means knowing when to reach out for assistance or delegate and when you can handle a situation on your own.
  3. Stay focused: Leaders must make connections ― but you can’t do that if you’re distracted. Train yourself to focus on work for longer periods and consider other ways to improve productivity.
  4. Set boundaries: Leaders must establish firm limits. Be warm toward others, but say no when necessary. Be serious about your work and passions and keep your boundaries firm to maintain the integrity of your goals and the work you put into them.
  5. Know your emotional triggers: Self-aware individuals can identify their emotions as they happen. Don’t repress your emotions or deny their causes; instead, bend and flex with them and fully process them before communicating with others.
  6. Embrace your intuition. Successful people learn to trust their instincts when making a business decision and take the risks associated with those choices. Your instincts are based on the survival of the fittest and the need to succeed. They will tell you what to do next, so learn to trust your intuition.
  7. Practice self-discipline: Good leaders tend to be disciplined in every area of their lives. This trait provides them with the enduring focus necessary for strong leadership.
  8. Consider how your actions affect others: We often act without thinking first, focusing only on our needs. While self-awareness requires acknowledging your emotions, you must also identify how you handle those feelings and how any subsequent actions impact those around you. Being more considerate of others will help you navigate difficult situations.
  9. Apologize when necessary: Mistakes happen, but self-awareness will help you recognize when your slip-ups require you to apologize at work. Maybe you lashed out at your staff or have been difficult to reach lately. Whatever your mistake was, saying you’re sorry (and meaning it) and then changing your behavior is the best way to move forward.
  10. Ask for feedback: While self-awareness means understanding yourself without input from others, it takes courage (and self-awareness) to ask for honest employee feedback. Doing this acknowledges your natural biases toward yourself (which we all have) and helps you gain a more objective view.
Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Self-awareness takes time, commitment and practice. Continuous open and honest dialog with yourself and your employees is a great way to understand your strengths and correct leadership mistakes.

Benefits of self-awareness

Improving your self-awareness may sound like leadership training jargon. However, actively working on understanding yourself and your reactions has tangible benefits that can positively impact your career and business:

  • Self-awareness sets the tone at work: When your employees see you taking the time to understand your strengths, weaknesses, emotions and reactions, they’ll be inspired to follow suit. Better self-awareness from the top down can positively change company culture. Even if you’re not in a leadership position, practicing self-awareness will cause others to take notice.
  • Self-awareness improves relationships: Increased self-awareness helps you control your reactions, empathize with others and communicate better ― all key elements of employee engagement. Self-awareness builds trust and openness, fostering an environment where employees and colleagues feel safe coming to you with any issue.
  • Self-awareness inspires teamwork: Beyond building relationships, self-awareness skills help you to become a better team player. You’ll know which tasks to delegate and when to ask for feedback or assistance. You’ll also be better positioned to promote workplace collaboration among your staff. 
  • Self-awareness makes people want to work for you: Self-awareness produces stronger, more effective leaders, creating environments where workers thrive. This positive company culture can help you attract and retain top talent
  • Self-awareness leads to better decision-making: Leaders are tasked with making multiple decisions daily and high-stakes decisions often result in high emotions. Self-awareness helps you control those emotions so you can decide rationally. It also builds confidence ― a critical factor in assertively choosing a course of action. Plus, a self-aware leader is conscious of their implicit biases and can take those into account. 
  • Self-awareness helps manage conflict: Effective communication and strong relationships reduce workplace conflict. However, tensions sometimes rise even in the best companies. Keeping a cool head and knowing when to compromise will help resolve disputes. An effectively managed disagreement isn’t always a bad thing. Healthy workplace conflicts can even be good for your business.
  • Self-awareness makes you more productive: Understanding how you work, especially areas where you need improvement or help, allows you to work better. Knowing where you excel will grow your confidence, leading you to work quicker and more assertively. Delegating tasks to better-suited colleagues will free up time and make your workplace more productive. Finally, focusing on improving your weaknesses will help you grow into a stronger leader.

Examples of self-awareness in the workplace

Strong self-awareness can lead to better outcomes in the workplace. Here are a few examples of how self-awareness can positively impact typical situations.

Asking for a promotion

When asking your boss for a raise or a promotion, self-awareness will ensure you make a compelling case. 

Understanding where you excel and where you don’t will help you be honest with yourself about what positions suit you. You don’t want to waste your manager’s time ― or your own ― going for jobs you’re not qualified for.

Being confident in your strengths and transparent about your weaknesses can convince your boss that you deserve a promotion. For example, if you work in sales and want a management position, detailing your excellent numbers and strong customer relationships demonstrate that you know how to close deals. 

However, acknowledging that you could be a better team player and would like training in that area shows that you’re honest, trustworthy and committed to improving the company. 

Ask about professional development opportunities at work to demonstrate your commitment to growth and improvement.

Participating in a performance review

Whether you’re the CEO or an intern, receiving feedback during a performance review can be uncomfortable. While it would be nice to only hear positive comments, it wouldn’t be very beneficial. Critiques on what we could do better will help in the long run ― but hearing them can sting. 

Let’s say you work in information technology and have a performance review coming up. Keen self-awareness can help you get the most from the situation. By acknowledging your weaknesses, such as slower ticket resolution times for specific software platforms, you won’t be surprised when the topic arises. 

If you tend to react negatively to criticism, prepare ahead of time. Remind yourself that there are other areas in which you excel and that your boss is only making critiques to help you develop. Managing your emotions will help you digest the criticism and offer solutions, such as requesting software training. By avoiding negative emotions, you’ll build a better relationship with your superior.

Raise your self-awareness when preparing for a performance review by writing a self-assessment beforehand. It'll help you understand your accomplishments and set goals for improvement.

Managing conflict 

Conflicts are a natural part of doing business, especially when working on a team. Still, self-awareness skills can help you resolve workplace conflicts effectively.

Imagine you’re part of the marketing team tasked with creating a new slogan for your flagship brand. You’ve come up with an idea you firmly believe in, yet your colleague has a different idea you disagree with. 

If you recognize that you tend to back down in situations of conflict, you can work actively to find ways to be more assertive in championing your idea. For example, you could find alternative ways to communicate your points or enlist a trusted co-worker to help you convince the rest of your team. 

Self-awareness leads to growth

Self-awareness is an essential trait for leadership. But knowing yourself is only the first part of the equation. You must make the effort to adapt and change accordingly, focusing on the skills and areas that will make you a stronger leader. Remember that working on self-awareness is not about becoming enlightened about who you are but, instead, growing toward who you want to become.

Sean Peek and Nicole Fallon contributed to this article.

Tom Anziano headshot
Tom Anziano, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Writer
Thomas Anziano is an advertising and marketing professional who has worked in the U.S. and Germany. He has also taught Business Writing in English to university students in Madrid, Spain. He holds a degree in Marketing and Spanish.
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