Developing Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a crucial leadership skill. You want to make the best possible decisions for your company, and that requires not just knowledge of external factors, but also of your own internal state. After all, that internal state has a big impact on how you approach information, as well as interactions with your team. Better self-awareness leads to better decisions, which ultimately leads to better results.

The question is, where do you start?

Below, I’ve listed 7 starting points for developing your self-awareness.

7 Easy-ish Ways To Develop Self-Awareness

There’s no right place to start, so while these are roughly listed in order of ascending difficulty and time investment, you should be able to pick any of these and jump right in. As you get more familiar with both the topic and yourself, I’m confident you’ll find more and more avenues for self-reflection that will allow you to shape your own path to increased self-awareness.

1. Psychometric tests

Psychometric tests can be a great way to dip your toe in the waters of self-awareness. At the very least, they will tell you something that you can assess your own self-image against. At best, they will tell give you insight into how and why you are the way you are.

My recommendations:

  • Myers-Briggs (MBTI)
    Not exactly scientific, but hugely popular nonetheless.
  • Big Five (OCEAN)
    The most well-established scientific psychometric test, that holds up the best over time. The one linked here is a relatively simple version.
  • Spiral Dynamics
    I did this one as part of my MBA program, and it’s by far the most on-point test I’ve ever done. If I didn’t know any better I’d say they had been keeping tabs on me for years on the off chance I’d end up doing this test.

2. Keep a journal

Keeping a journal lets you build a record of various internal states and their broader context.

Over time, this will let you see patterns to your internal state. Taking the time to reflect on those patterns can be a first step to understanding them, and change them where necessary.

I’m a big fan of the 5 Minute Journal advocated by Tim Ferriss. Everyday you answer a handful of prompts that take you no more than 5 minutes in the morning and evening.

3. Sketch out your life path

Another great way to gain insight into the patterns in your life is to really dive into your personal history. After all, our life journey shapes who we are, how we think, how we feel, and how we act.

This assignment was given to us during the MBA program at nyenrode, and it’s one of the things that brought me the most value personally. I’ll see if I can share it in a more complete fashion later, but for now let me highlight the main steps of the exercise:

First, write down your key memories from various stages with identifying key moments in your life in the following stages:

  • Infant to puberty (0 – 12)
  • Adolescence (12 – 17)
  • Young adulthood (18 – 29)
  • Adulthood (30 – 39)
  • Early middle age (35 – 45)
  • Middle age (40-49)
  • Early eldership (50 – 59)
  • Eldership (Sixty-something)
  • Mature eldership (Seventy-something)
  • Advanced eldership (eighty- and ninety-something)

Specifically, you’ll want to identify memories that relate to peak times, tough times, critics, mentors or positive influencers, turning points, and ordinary times for each of these stages.

Then, take the time to write a narrative for each stage. As you do this, look for themes that are relevant across memories and life stages.

Finally, identify your weak and strong points as a leader, how they’ve figured in your life so far, and what you can do to get better.

4. Read a book

I can’t claim to have read most of the books on the topic of self-awareness, so I can’t point you to the definitive books on the subject. But I do have two recommendations for people that want some concrete starting points for brushing up on the topic.

The first is Awareness by Anthony De Mello, which is a nice primer on self-awareness in general, and whose contents touch on the practice of mindfulness as well.

The second is INTROSPECTION by Visakan Veerasamy. Now, Visa will probably be the first to admit that this book is a work in progress, and that parts of it are rough around the edges. But he does provide a very compelling overview of what a personal introspection journey might look like.

5. Meditation and mindfulness

As I understand it, meditation and the practice of mindfulness are ways to minimize, even if only temporarily, our overidentification with our thoughts and emotions.

The most basic form of meditation, known as vipassana, is nothing more than focusing on your breath for a given stretch of time, and trying to simply be aware of your thoughts and emotions rather than actively engaging with them.

You can easily do this alone, but if you like a bit more guidance, I’ve found these two apps to be very helpful:

  • Headspace
    Not just a great app, but now also a show on Netflix explaining the basics of mindfulness. Great starting point!
  • Waking up
    Very nice app based on the book of the same name (which was interesting, but a bit too technical for my tastes).

6. Get better at giving and receiving feedback

If you’re on the path of self-discovery and self-improvement, you can’t get around feedback. Both the kind that you give, and the kind that you receive. Starting with the first, you can’t really call yourself self-aware unless you’re also aware of how you show up to others. Getting that feedback is invaluable, so it makes sense to work on how you receive that feedback.

On the other side of the coin, learning to give better feedback can help your self-awareness, as there’s often a disconnect between our intentions and how our feedback is interpreted.

I recommend the following books on these topics, both from the same authors:

  • Thanks For The Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
  • Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

7. Building self-awareness as a team

You might also want to work on building self-awareness as a team. This can be even more powerful than doing it as an individual. Working on this as a group means you can help each other, and hold each other accountable when you inevitably slip up. I haven’t found too many books on the topic, but here are the ones I’ve found that are well worth your time:

  • 15 Commitments Of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer
    Very specifically focused on self-awareness and building a self-aware team
  • Dare To Lead by Brené Brown
    Focuses on the role of trust and vulnerability, with a very practical workbook that can be used by any team
  • The Culture Map by Erin Meyer
    A tad more specific than the other two, this one is especially useful for intercultural teams. It can help to understand your own culture-based quirks in relation to those of others, and how to overcome the differences between them.

BONUS – Psychotherapy

I’m throwing in the Big One as a bonus.

Depending on your life experiences so far, doing any amount of introspection or reflection can feel overwhelming or even downright unsafe. If that is the case, I highly recommend working with a professional therapist to work on these issues. Unresolved issues have a way of showing up and having a negative impact on your life, and they are all but guaranteed to undermine your work as a leader. If it’s too hard to work through these issues on your own, a good therapist can help you work through them safely.

I’ve been to therapy for relatively minor personal issues myself, and it really helped me sort out some things that would have taken me a LOT longer to do on my own.

Next steps

Here are some next steps you can take if this essay has piqued your interest: