Being Self Aware Enough to Know If You Are Self Aware Enough
I have a habit of having conversations that I have had in the past roll around in my head for a while. Sometimes, these conversations and ideas help me make better sense of my world, especially around the concepts of leadership and connection. For example, probably three years ago I was chatting with a principal colleague about research I had come across when I was seconded to the provincial ministry of education. I had read that more effective school leaders are more self aware, and less effective school leaders are less self aware. My friend commented that was funny because probably every principal is in one of two camps - they are either self aware, or they think they are self aware and have no idea how little self awareness they have - yikes. I was shocked into silence, which is rare for me! Could it be true that I was one of those leaders who thought I was self aware but was actually not at all? After giving it some thought (for three years), I have some ideas about how a leader could tell if they have enough self awareness to be highly effective in their role.
I dont think anyone is in one side or another; I am sure self awareness is on a continuum. If one had zero self awareness, it would be hard to gain employment, let alone become a leader in an organization. Likewise, if one is too self-aware to the point of being debilitated by in-decision, leadership would be a painful role to say the least. So there must be a balance, and I think that more self aware leaders probably allow themselves to better understand how their actions, words, and decisions impact others a little more than those that are less self aware. A leader who is more self aware will spend a more energy trying to understand the people in their organization and figure out how to best support them to do their best work at any given moment. But is there a sign a leader could identify to help them feel validated in their own level of self awareness? I think so.
Around the same time I had discovered this research on self awareness, I also read another study that stated that highly effective school leaders have someone in their organization who will be a truth teller. This means that the more effective leader will be open to, invite, or maybe actively pursue someone in their organization to share with them a quality dose of reality, ask tough questions, and inform their leadership of how things actually look and feel to the team in general. The truth teller is key, because the truth teller will inform a self aware leader how to improve the organization and how to serve the organization’s people. But, when a truth teller approaches a leader who lacks self awareness, the response from the leader may be indifference, or worse. if the leader in this case is trying to protect their ego from an employees description of their reality, the response may be harsh or damaging to the relationship with that employee. Likely, the truth teller may decide it is safer to remain silent than to risk offending the leader in the future, in spite of trying to help improve the organization. If this happens enough over time, the leader would become surrounded with “YES people” who celebrate their leader’s amazing decisions, regardless of what is actually happening in the organization. The leader has people giving them feedback, but no one is risking authentic constructive feedback, because it will fall on deaf ears, and potentially hurt that employees chance at promotion.
In a school with a connected leadership team, who has a high degree of self awareness and is concerned with serving their school community, they will undoubtedly be visited by truth tellers - those brave souls willing to risk offending the supervisor for a chance to share what they believe to be important information. So my response to my friend in that conversation three years ago could have went something like this: “well, one way to know if you are self aware enough in your school is if you have someone on your staff who tells you when you are not being self aware! If you do, then you are probably doing just fine. if you dont, better start out digging around about why not… and maybe start a journal!”
Of course this stuff isn’t an exact science, and their is no cookie cutter formula to make this happen - probably why their are thousands of books on leadership anyway! But I do think their is merit for any leader to assess their own self-awareness and to seek out truth tellers in their organization. Leadership is about being the lead learner anyway - so leaders should model how to become more self aware to become more effective in their work.
In full disclosure, I am two weeks in at my new school as principal, and I am not sure I have had anyone come to see me and give me the goods about my own leadership yet. But it is early, and I am still busy connecting! They have commented however on my basketball skills or lack thereof after a pick up game on Friday last week, and a few people told me they liked the kilt I wore at the pep rally - at this point I am taking all the feedback I can get.
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