By Bruce Gillies
Leadership. Just the mention of it brings up very different images. There is George Washington crossing the Delaware, pointing the way. Or Martin Luther King’s memorable “I Have a Dream” speech. Or perhaps Herb Brooks leading the U.S. Olympic hockey team to victory over a very powerful Russian team in 1980. Each of these images portrays a leader influencing their followers in ways that the followers did not think of themselves or overcoming the self-doubt of the followers in achieving incredible goals.
But with all the varied manifestations of leadership, one of the common implements in any effective and successful leader’s toolbox is self-awareness. A leader must know their own competency limits, their emotional hot buttons, and how they come across to their followers and others.
Leadership courses often offer specific skill-improvement seminars that might focus on conflict management, improving performance or motivation. But seldom do they discuss the need for leaders to become aware of their own tendencies and biases with regard to their leadership behaviors. Some programs might offer a lecture on emotional intelligence, but that is only one part of the bigger picture of self-awareness. Emotional intelligence allows you to recognize the influence you have on others, but often neglects understanding how we as leaders are influenced by our followers and our leaders as well. How do you feel and how do you tend to behave after you have worked on a document for weeks and your boss says, “This is wrong, and I want you to redo it and have it on my desk by tomorrow”? What do you say when one of your followers doesn’t respond to requests for improvement in their performance? Do you have a tendency to get angry or to ask more questions?
There are several key questions you can ask yourself to get to know your own leadership behaviors and tendencies, such as the following:
• How do I prefer to work? Do I like to focus on the big picture or details?
• How do I prefer to communicate? Am I most comfortable with email, memos or face-to-face meetings?
• Do I heat up quickly when confronted with an alternative idea, or do I accept it as a new perspective?
Clearly, personality does contribute to these tendencies at a certain level. But our personalities are only the starting point. We need to be aware of the behavior to which our personalities contribute. Sure, we can get angry or anxious inside, but if we can behave otherwise it will come across very differently.
I suggest considering conducting a “SWOT” analysis of your leadership awareness:
Strengths — What are you good at as a leader? Are you better at long-term or short-term projects? Do you come across as friendly, or do you have a more professional demeanor?
Weaknesses — Where can you improve?
Opportunities — What skill sets can you develop to leverage the strengths you’ve identified?
Threats – What areas of your leadership tool kit do you need to improve upon to overcome any challenges or challengers?
One common thread among leaders is a natural curiosity to engage in change and what might be. This is what differentiates true leaders from managers who prefer to play it safe.
As you evaluate your own leadership skills, continue to ask yourself what are the situational variations between your successful leadership efforts and those that are less successful. You will be pleasantly surprised that you can control many of these.
• Bruce Gillies is the director of online education and an assistant professor of business for California Lutheran University’s School of Management.