The First Step to Great Leadership is Self-Awareness

“While I was waiting for my interview in a reception area, a pizza delivery man, a young guy dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, carried in a heavy pack of pizza boxes and water bottles.  He struggled with the door. I jumped up, but before I could help him, a receptionist let him through.

5 minutes later I am sitting in the interview conference room, the “pizza delivery man” walks in. He extends his hand for a handshake and says, “I am Greg Tagaris, chief information officer of DoubleClick. Sorry I am a little late. I was taking food to my guys. They are working without lunch because we have technical problems. I saw you trying to help me, thanks.”

The inner leader

As those of you who follow my TLNT column know, I love these types of stories. As I commonly say, “You can’t teach this in a leadership off site.”

Leadership of this type is ingrained; some have it and, unfortunately, some don’t. I often times struggle as I coach executives, quite amazed at their inability to be self-aware and to not realize that every action sends a message. Every decision or indecision sends a message.

This style of leadership I would define as authentic, genuine. Did this CIO have to be told to show a kind side and get pizza for his crew? There is an effortless feel to this and it comes across as natural.

I have always felt that what you do when no one is watching shows the real person you are; the kindness you show when nothing in return is expected.

Becoming an authentic leader is not easy. It takes a great deal of self-reflection (getting to know oneself), and the courage to do the right thing. It involves a degree of selflessness. In a world crowded with self-important, morally corrupt, and dysfunctional leaders, authentic leadership is, and will always be, at the top of the best leadership styles.

Know thy self

I have a dear friend who is a psychiatrist. He told me that during your training you must be analyzed to better understand yourself. This has stayed with me over the years as I ask the questions, “Do you know who you are? Do you understand you?”

Those are powerful questions we should ask ourselves from time-to-time. Our perception of ourselves can become severely skewed over the years. As a leader at the top of the corporate food chain, the deference shown you by your subordinates can create a false sense of who you are. Over a period of time, this cocoon can grow leadership blind spots. Without periodically stopping to look yourself in the mirror of honest analysis, you can fool yourself into thinking you have all the answers and know what’s best.

The self-absorbed leader is a danger to any organization.

Become the maestro

Effective leaders are like orchestra conductors. Just as the conductor is tasked with optimizing and harmonizing the efforts of each musician to create something greater and more powerful than discrete, individual performances, leaders are expected to do the same.

The effective leader must make sure everyone understands the direction and, at the least, understands the journey they are on. They ensure people know what is expected of them, have the opportunity to practice their part, and receive feedback to improve individual and collective success.

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Like the orchestra conductor, a leader must be able to orchestrate great performances as a group rather than managing each section or individual as separate performers.

Who are you?

Effective leaders build a solid foundation for success by focusing, first on identifying and addressing their own development needs, and then on building relationships and fostering teamwork, rather than simply focusing on directing the efforts of others.

While it might seem counterintuitive, the most important aspect of developing your team is spending time focusing on yourself. Many leaders believe that focusing on managing should be their first priority, not realizing that effective leadership begins with themselves as individuals. A clear understanding of self is the critical foundation of effective leadership.

So next time you are thinking about your leadership effectiveness, think about your self first ,before you think about others.

Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.