Leadership is an inside out job! “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no on thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy

There comes a time in every leaders career, when you are confronted with a behavior, attitude or perspective which serves as a liability rather than an asset. Often times, the greatest barrier to acknowledging our personable foibles, is due to our lack of self-awareness and the lack of mentors and colleagues who can give us honest, candid feedback. As a result, the first time you’re likely to hear a critique of your performance is during a year end review with your boss, or if you’re the CEO, with your board of directors, or perhaps when your business experiences a recent setback. This scenario is often ascribed to the “lonely at the top” experience of many senior leaders.

It is somewhat shocking that most senior leaders do not have a circle of trusted advisors, mentors, and coaches, in whom they can confide, bounce ideas, or seek council. In working with executives and leaders, I am constantly made aware that most organizations unfortunately do not create environments where honest feedback is encouraged amongst peers, and most supervisors fail miserably in giving meaningful feedback and timely coaching. So in the absence of a coaching supervisor, trusted advisors, and mentors, how does one go about correcting a behavior or habit before its too late and you’re presented with news that comes as a surprise?

I suggest that leaders commit to continuous self-examination and personal development.

This activity could take many forms, such as finding a mentor, reading self-improvement literature, meeting with a psychologist or therapist, meeting with a minister or spiritual advisors. Any of these actions will aid you in becoming more self-aware. Our capacity to become more emotionally self-aware, to make an accurate self-assessment, develop healthy self-confidence, all will enable one to anticipate and better respond in those moments when one make those mistakes – which we will make! Why does it matter how one responds in these situations?

Because, as a leader, your behavior will be observed and imitated by your people. It is imperative that leaders are tuned in to those they lead. 

Listening well has been found to distinguish the best managers, teachers, and leaders. Most of us, if we can be honest with ourselves, are prone to self-absorption and preoccupation with ourselves which shrinks our focus, so that we are less able to notice other peoples feelings and needs, let alone respond with empathy. As suggested by Brian Evje of Slalom Consulting, after recognizing the need to be self-aware, you must seek feedback. I like to use the phrase – “make feedback your best friend”. As Robert Kaplan puts it, feedback is a critical vehicle for achieving priorities and creating alignment to help achieve the organizations’ mission.

Another critical leadership skill is developing self-regulation and self-management. As the head of research at a global executive search firm put it, “CEO’s are hired for their intellect and business expertise – and are fired for a lack of emotional intelligence.” Human beings are terribly complex and it is rare that we have an accurate assessment of how we come across to others, including peers, associates, and bosses. Many of the mistakes or more unconscionable acts in business and politics can be attributed to the inability to control emotions or impulses. A hallmark of self-control is the leader who stays calm and clear-headed under high stress or during a crisis – or who remains unflappable even when confronted by a trying situation. Stress and crisis are commonplace for many of us today, so the need to develop self-control is even more critical for leaders, as leaders are being counted on to lead others through crisis and stressful situations.

Other leadership qualities that should be developed are:

  • transparency – an authentic openness to others about ones feelings, beliefs and actions
  • adaptability – able to juggle multiple demands without losing focus or energy, and are comfortable with the inevitable ambiguities of organizational life
  • initiative – seizing opportunities or able to create them rather than simply waiting
  • optimism – being able to roll with the punches, seeing an opportunity rather than a threat in setbacks.

As I work with clients, it is my goal to develop an dialog on developing a clear accurate assessment of their strengths and liabilities. As stated earlier, in the absence of mentors or coaches, our own self-evaluation could be far from the reality. Leaders who seek help on developing the skills of self-awareness and  self-management will engage others in a way which commands respect and admiration. When we know ourselves and act with integrity, others will seek to emulate those actions. 


It may be very helpful to periodically review the following questions:

  • Do I really know myself and how would I describe that?
  • Do I know how I come across to others, including family members and friends?
  • How am I feeling about myself and others right now?
  • Can I make a list of my strengths and liabilities?

These questions can serve to interrupt our tendency to live our whole life without understanding the inner dynamics that drive what we do and say.According to Polly LaBarre, co-founder of the Management Innovation Exchange, leaderships is an inside out job. Getting “under-the-hood”of who you are as a leader and doing the required work and being committed to developing yourself has rewards for a lifetime.

 Robert Steven Kaplan – What to Ask the Person in the Mirror

 Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence

 Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence

 Kaplan, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror

 Richard Boyzatis, Anne McKee, Daniel Goleman – Primal Leadership

 Change Leader, Change Thyself – Nate Boaz, Erica Ariel Fox, McKinsey Quarterly, March 2014