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How to Recognize a Self-Aware Leader

This is the third article in my Self-Aware Leadership series. I’ve covered What Self-Awareness Means for Leaders here and shared Three Ways to Become a More Self-Aware Leader here.

While many leaders claim to be self-aware, there are unspoken habits and traits that reveal the depth of that self-awareness. (Self-awareness isn’t something you can just pay lip service to. It’s talk you’ve got to walk.) While this list isn’t exhaustive, it’s a great starting point.

How to Recognize a Self-Aware Leader

1. Humble: Humility may be the most important characteristic of the self-aware leader. With humility comes an accurate self-understanding of strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. Practicing and modeling humility requires both courage and vulnerability and creates the kind of honest work environment that allows everyone to feel comfortable asking for help.

2. Reflective: Self-aware leaders carve out time for regular self-reflection. By reflecting on their own thoughts, words, and actions and how they impact others, they are better able to evaluate who they are as an individual and how they interact with the people in their immediate environment. They can then decide whether they are serving or detracting from the direction they want to go.

Self-aware leaders know that they are pursuing more than individual success.

3. Observant: Self-aware leaders don’t need to do all the talking. Instead, they sit back and observe, paying attention to what's being said by others and what’s happening around them. By being present, they have cues to effectively guide their own behavior.

4. Empathetic: Considering the feelings of others as they make decisions and communicate is a hallmark trait of the self-aware leader. While it’s not always possible to make the emotional needs of others a top consideration, acknowledging them builds organization-wide trust.

5. Perceptive: By being in tune with their environment and the people in it, self-aware leaders can anticipate the response to and the outcome of a situation. This prevents “tone-deafness” and allows these leaders to prepare ahead of time, and show up calm, cool and collected.

6. Responsive: Related to “Observant”, self-aware leaders listen with focus and intention because they aren’t waiting to say what they want to say. Controlling the narrative isn’t on their agenda. This allows them to understand others and adjust their responses in the most meaningful way.

7. Curious: Self-aware leaders are curious about their own strengths and weaknesses. They recognize their blind sides, biases and bad communication habits and work to improve them. By asking for feedback from others, they can work on correcting any shortcomings that limit the effectiveness of their leadership.

8. Self-controlled: Starting with emotional self-control, self-aware leaders can manage their own words and actions, especially in high-stakes situations. They know that reactivity serves no one and keeping their mind and body calm allows them to be present and respond from a place of strength.

9. Discerning: Because self-aware leaders are conscious of their strengths and shortcomings, they can make wise choices on how to best handle a situation. They are quick to seek wise counsel when necessary, so they aren’t limited by their personal blind spots.

10. Adaptable: The flexible thinking that comes with self-awareness allows leaders to assess a situation and adapt their behavior quickly, sometimes on the spot, when necessary. They readily admit they don’t know everything (intellectual humility) and focus on finding the best path forward by listening to alternate opinions.

Self-aware leaders know that they are pursuing more than individual success. They consistently work at strengthening these habits and traits so that they become the very best leaders they can. Their ultimate goal is to help others do the same.

This takes work, self-discipline, and a willingness to be uncomfortable with the reality they discover – about themselves and the organization they lead. As Cam Caldwell, Ph. D., an author and professor at University of Illinois says, “It takes work and willingness to recognize and accept that reality, like it or not, is truth.”


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