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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • May 16, 2013
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3 Things Every Great Leader Knows About Themselves 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

Every good leader possesses a heightened sense of awareness – an ability to read situations in which they find themselves and act accordingly.

Great leaders take this one step further. They are not only aware, they are also self-aware. They know much about themselves. 

Perhaps not everything (who of us knows ourselves entirely?), but more than most.

Driven by innate curiosity, passion and a desire to improve what they do, you can also be sure that a truly committed leader knows more about themselves today than they did a year ago.

The range of things about which a leader can develop self-awareness is of course enormous: Temper, resilience, intellectual and cultural blind-spots, risk profile…these and many more are both important and useful to know about – and also form a lifetime’s study.

But if you want to start building your self-awareness in areas that will yield immediate (positive) results in how you lead, start with these three:

Do you typically undershoot or overshoot? 

Watch a golfer have a bad day on the putting green and you’ll notice one thing: they’ll tend to be chronically short with their putts, or persistently too long.

The single most immediate area for self-awareness improvement I see in most leaders is to gain a clear understanding of how they set goals (formally and informally). Again and again I work with leaders unaware that they are consistently playing small ball (setting goals that are way too conservative given their talents), or forever over-reaching (setting goals they won’t achieve, causing disappointment for themselves and exhaustion in their team).

You can perform a self-analysis by using this routine: Grab a legal pad, write out the last five or six leadership goals you set yourself, and jot down whether or not you undershot or overshot. See if you can decipher a pattern. Not sure? Ask colleagues.

Still not sure? Keep a running log for a month or two. Once you know which is your tendency, the key of course is to re-calibrate your goal-setting: Set your goals higher, step by step, if you’re undershooting; lower them, little by little if you’re consistently over-shooting.

Once you’ve hit your sweet spot, and are consistently hitting near or at the goals you set, you will of course want to start edging those goals upward. Nothing wrong with that – pushing goals based on a record of consistent success is a good thing.

Is your tendency to analyze, fix or delegate?

The second area I see leaders gain the biggest advantage from understanding is in knowing how they respond when things go wrong.

Broadly, there are three possible responses: analyze what just happened; ‘just fix it’; delegate responsibility for fixing it to someone else. (These broadly map to the ProcessorOperator and Visionary styles of leadership, respectively.)

Try the same exercise as before: take a yellow pad, list out the last five or six things that have gone wrong on your watch, and jot down what you did in response. If in most cases you responded with a mixture of all three possible responses (some analysis, some direction and some delegation), then all is well. If you consistently responded by going straight to one option (analyze, fix or delegate), then you have a challenge ahead – you’re taking a knee-jerk, and hence blinkered, approach to problem-solving.

Try slowing up the time you take to respond when faced with decisions like this. Force yourself to consider all three options: Do I need more information here before making a decision about what to do?; Do I need to intervene here directly?; Is there someone else who could fix this better and quicker than I?

Do you usually say yes or no?

This last one is easy to analyze, but just as profound: do you consistently say ‘Yes’ to everything that comes your way, causing you to over-commit and under-deliver; or do you consistently say ‘No’, building a reputation as a stick-in-the-mud and missing opportunities to innovate?

You don’t need the yellow pad this time – just go ask folks who know you. If you have a tendency toward one or t’other, believe me, they’ll know. The answer? Well, sometimes the answer even to a leadership challenge is a no-brainer. As one of my earliest mentors said to me when I explained a behavioral problem I was having: ‘Just stop that. Now.’


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