A History on Self-Awareness and Leadership

In my blog post last week, I wrote about the reasons why I believe self-awareness and mindfulness continue to be essential for today’s leaders. To me, it is easy to see that the world’s most effective, well regarded and influential leaders all have a little extra spark that other leaders lack. That spark isn’t charisma or a way with words. It’s nothing magical or mysterious, either. That spark I’m referring to is self-awareness.

Self-aware leaders operate with an added layer of cognizance. They seem to know things other people don’t know, and they have a knack for anticipating situations, challenges and the attendant solutions. Furthermore, they almost never seem to get rattled, nor do they take their frustrations out on their employees. Rather, they skillfully navigate life and leadership with a calm, knowing attitude that inspires others like nothing else.

These days, it might seem obvious that self-awareness should be considered essential for leadership. But things weren’t always this way. In fact, self-awareness has only recently become recognized as important for leadership.

So, how did self-awareness enter the world of leadership? And how likely is it to stick around as a critical leadership concept? Here’s a fun little history lesson for you…

It All Comes Back to Emotional Intelligence

In my opinion, you cannot have a discussion about self-awareness and leadership without acknowledging the concept of Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence (also known as “EQ” or “EI”) can be understood as a measure of an individual’s social smarts. It’s not about knowing facts, being good at math or having an ability to memorize dates, places or names. A high “EQ” does not necessarily correlate to a high IQ, either. Instead, it’s a way to measure one’s ability to navigate the many types of situations and scenarios that arise in life and work.

Self-awareness is one of the main components of Emotional Intelligence. Being aware of oneself and one’s own tendencies is a prerequisite, in fact, to becoming aware of others, which makes it such a crucial factor in determining a person’s EQ.

To determine how self-awareness became so important for modern Grounded Leadership, it is necessary to look at the history of Emotional Intelligence, as it applies to the realm of leadership.

You may have an understanding of Emotional Intelligence as a new concept, and technically, you would not be wrong. Like many modern leaders, you may be familiar with it from Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking work, particularly his 1995 book, entitled Emotional Intelligence – why it can matter more than IQ. Therefore, you may think it’s a concept that’s younger than the average Millennial of today. However, the phrase was actually coined decades ago in 1964 in a research paper by Michael Beldoch.

Even so, the term “Emotional Intelligence” is younger than many of today’s most powerful leaders. Therefore, many people are apt to dismiss the concept as a flash-in-the-pan phrase designed to sell books and get leaders to sign up for coaching courses.

Here’s the issue: Emotional Intelligence is just a phrase. Yes, it has only been in usage for a few decades, but the traits and characteristics it refers to are timeless. The fact is that emotional intelligence has existed for as long as human beings have walked the earth and interacted with one another. We just didn’t have a popular name for it until Daniel Goleman started writing about it in the mid ’90s.

The real push for EQ being an essential quality for leadership began in 1987 when social psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer met and began to discuss their research into concepts like thought, feelings and human behavior. Through their discussions, they realized that theories of intelligence never considered the topic of emotion. They decided that day to create a new theory, one that would encompass the tricky concept of human emotion in a new way.

In 1990 Salovey and Mayer published their theory in the scholarly journal Imagination Cognition and Personality. They titled their theory “Emotional Intelligence,” and defined it this way:

A form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and action.

This theory may have raised eyebrows among academics, but the general public failed to take notice until Goleman published his book, which refines the previous work done by Salovey and Mayer. The book became wildly popular and transformed Goleman into a modern intelligence guru of sorts. But what’s perhaps most notable about Goleman’s book on emotional intelligence is that it applied the concept of EQ to the world of business.

In Goleman’s book, he identifies four key characteristics of people who possess high Emotional Intelligence:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Social skills

Notice what’s at the top of the list of characteristics? That’s right! Daniel Goleman himself has identified self-awareness as a key component of Emotional Intelligence. And he is right – there is no Emotional Intelligence without self-awareness. I would even go so far as to argue that none of the other essential EQ characteristics Goleman mentions would be possible without self-awareness.

Looking back, it is clear that the idea of self-awareness, as it applies to leadership, really took off in the mid-1990s. But discussions about it were relegated largely to academic circles for some time before leaders in the real world began to truly discover the powerful benefits of so-called “soft skills.”

Over the course of the new millennium, which has amazingly encompassed 20 years now, old-school leadership tactics and best practices have been completely obliterated. In today’s world, self-awareness is accepted widely as a critical leadership trait. My fear is that it’s so commonplace that people have begun to ignore it or take it for granted.

Here’s the truth: Self-awareness is more important now than ever for leaders.

How Your Organization Benefits from Your Self-Awareness

When you become more self-aware, you come face-to-face with your own strengths, weaknesses and even your hidden biases. You can no longer hide from who you are; you have to deal with the reality of yourself and your leadership as it stands, right now. That might be terrifying and intimidating, but it’s the only way to improve your leadership.

Your commitment to greater self-awareness will be noticed by the people you lead. They will see you as more credible and better able to help them with their challenges as employees. They will see you as a legitimate model for their own advancement and progress, too, which helps to create a culture of coaching, engagement, trust and organizational pride.

At worst, self-awareness helps leaders rise to new levels of credibility and effectiveness for themselves. At best, the sky's the limit for their entire organization.

For example, self-aware leaders tend to create cultures and teams where internal conflict is nearly non-existent. With this type of leadership, people feel free to address their concerns in a more open and healthy manner than they might have otherwise. Communication improves. Engagement rises. Organizational fortunes improve. It may seem like magic, but really, it’s self-awareness that is creating this foundation of success.

If you are not convinced about the power of self-awareness in leadership, consider this: a study conducted by Korn Ferry Institute discovered numerous strong connections between self-aware leaders and the achievement of impressive business results. The study found that self-aware leaders are more likely to perform at a high level, meet their goals and save on turnover costs.

Self-awareness makes leadership richer, more fulfilling and more meaningful. It also makes organizations run better. Therefore, you have no excuse to avoid working on your self-awareness if you want to lead effectively in the current climate.

Ready to Explore Your Self-Awareness?

I am passionate about bringing ideas like mindfulness, Emotional Intelligence and self-awareness to the forefront of the discussion about leadership. That’s why I write about it, talk about it and engage in discussions about it as much as possible.

Here in 2020, I want to go even further, which is why I am presenting my popular Grounded Leader workshop as a webinar series, which makes it much more accessible than ever before.

The webinar series will dive deeply into the topic of self-awareness, so if you’re interested in activating yours, I strongly encourage you to take part.

Want to learn more? Click here to find out everything you need to know about the Grounded Leader webinar series. Make sure you act fast, though – spots are filling up quickly and the first session is coming up soon on February 25th!

Do you have any questions or thoughts about this article? I would love to continue the conversation! Call me at 1.855.871.3374 or send me an email at joanne.trotta@leadersedgeinc.ca. Let’s talk!

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