The Importance of Being a Self-Aware Leader

“You’re in the Army, you must not have any problems being assertive. You just say things and people do them, right?”

Sitting in my counselor’s office, these words fell on my ears and caused me to smile. Even in parts of the public where people are more familiar with the military, the idea of the “no-nonsense, do what I say” leader is prevalent. And when we look around, it’s sometimes not hard to see why: on the surface, it’s the easiest form of leadership. Although, it’s not so much leadership as authoritarianism. When I made this comment, my counselor laughed and said that he didn’t think that self-awareness was encouraged in the Army.

Army leaders are taught from the very outset of their careers that having authority does not equate to being a leader. They are taught that leadership is a learned quality, something that is formed over time with successes and failures. And yet it seems that sometimes the fallback – under stress, lack of sleep, or merely someone of higher rank peering over the shoulder – is the ol’ “do as I say, stop asking questions.” And unless you’ve got a subordinate or someone higher up in the chain of command to tell you that you’ve made a misstep, self-awareness is the only thing that can get you back on track.

Self-awareness is a dangerous quality. Like a double-edged sword, it cuts both ways. Too much, and you second guess literally every decision that you have to make. Not enough, and you become a strutting martinet. That said, it’s one of the most important qualities for a leader to inculcate and hone over their careers.

Not something easily taught, self-awareness comes as a distillation of experience, encounters with different kinds of leaders, and the ability to analyze one’s one thought process. And at its heart, it involves looking inwards rather than looking outwards. It focuses on the internal process of self-evaluation and critique in the context of one’s external actions – while not seeking to place blame or seek praise externally. As one outstanding leader I know puts it, “People that seek growth, that aren’t afraid of risk, and who perceive themselves as a work in progress – through the lens of their experiences – are on the road to self-awareness.”

Self-awareness brings two additional qualities of leadership: empathy and humility (ADP 6-22, for those doctrine nerds out there looking for more reading). Like self-awareness, too much of either makes you a push-over and a doormat. But lacking both leaves you open to the dangers of ego.

A parable, if I may.

Once upon a time, there were three platoon leaders. All very tactically and technically proficient. Each platoon was sent to support a rifle company – because poor little rifle companies need all the help they can get. The first platoon leader thought that he knew everything and was very protective of his platoon. Consequently, he quarreled with all the leaders in the rifle company, making life difficult for everyone. The second platoon leader had no biases concerning his abilities, but had little interpersonal tact. Therefore, he was unable to build relationships with the leaders he was supporting and the relationship floundered. The third platoon leader quickly established a healthy interpersonal and engaged relationship with the unit he was supporting, demonstrating his knowledge but also his willingness to learn. This led leaders in the rifle company to accept his expertise, respect his abilities, and it resulted in a well-organized team.

The third platoon leader demonstrated self-awareness and humility. In doing so, he put aside ego. The first platoon leader could not see past his own ego and so ended up alienating everyone else, while the second essentially just occupied space. Rejecting the military’s affinity for an ego is one of the hardest and most important habits a leader can make. And it is a habit. Day after day, one must examine one’s behavior and attitude for signs of blinding ego.

Demonstrating humility and empathy can sometimes be seen as a sign of weakness, since it involves self-reflection and permits the existence of self-doubt. Many leaders are trained to believe that showing weakness in any area is dangerous. However, empathetic leaders actually have an advantage since they are focused on the human dynamics of leadership: what makes people tick. 90% of our job as leaders involves dealing with other human beings. Trying to understand humans is what we do. Empathy helps us determine what others are feeling and thinking, and how best we can respond to them.

Self-awareness, then, involves using empathy and humility in dealing with others to build a better understanding of who people are, what motivates them, and how you can best leverage everyone’s talents while offsetting their weaknesses. It is an inward focused exercise that must be practiced daily. It must be balanced in order to minimize the growth of paralyzing self-doubt. Like a muscle, it must be exercised or it will deteriorate. Once developed, self-awareness is a powerful tool for moderating yourself as a leader and it is something that will pay dividends throughout your career.

A warning: self-awareness does not make life easier. It will make you a better leader, but it will not make dealing with the variances of life or the infuriatingly complex nature of humanity any easier. In fact, being self-aware can be a giant pain in the arse. It will cause pain. And you will be more conscious of the lack of self-awareness in those around you, which will then cause you to want to throw things at them – don’t throw things at the non self-aware. However, being self-aware will also allow you to live more deeply in the world. Your experiences will be richer and you will develop more meaningful connections. As I said, it’s a double-edged sword.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

Cover Photo: U.S. Army student squad leaders are evaluated by a Non-Commissioned Officer Academy (NCO) instructor during a mission preparation exercise at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, 17 March 2016, Sgt. Youtoy Martin, U.S. Army Central Public Affairs

2 Replies to “The Importance of Being a Self-Aware Leader”

  1. Amen, brother! Self-awareness also makes you aware of how you have an impact on other people by your demeanor when you interact with them when they bring knowledge and information to you; and by your demeanor when you respond to circumstances, make decisions, and direct action. Your success or failure is determined by how effectively you can interact with those who look to you for leadership and decision-making. Self-awareness is an essential part of self-control when it’s necessary for you to appear calm, cool, and collected to inspire confidence so that they will have the confidence to do their jobs.


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