The 5 ways to improve your self-awareness as a leader

The most overlooked element of a successful leader is self-awareness. Here’s why and what you can do about it.

A few months ago, I asked Ben Congleton, CEO of Olark, what he wished he’d learned earlier as a leader. No, he didn’t mention learning a new business development hack, nor did he talk about the importance of hiring well. Rather, what Ben wishes he’d learned earlier was how to improve his self-awareness as a leader.

Self-awareness, really? After considering it for a moment, I caught myself nodding vigorously at his answer. How true!

In my head, I recalled all the moments I’ve personally lacked self-awareness as a leader: When I micromanaged someone yet had no idea, when I argued against a new idea because of my own bias… The list goes on. Each time, I’d shot myself in the foot.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: Self-awareness at work just might be the most underrated, overlooked element of a successful leader.

Here’s why…

Why self-awareness is crucial for leaders

Fundamentally, self-awareness is about understanding your own mental state. It’s knowing about yourself: When are you energized? When are you in a bad mood? Where are you strong in, and where are you weak? What are you tendencies, your biases, and your leanings toward? What might your blindspots be?

This self-knowledge is irreplaceable. Without self-awareness, you can’t make informed decisions. You don’t know if you’re getting in your own way — if a strong irrational personal bias or misguided mental model is shaping your view on things.

Self-awareness is also critical as a leader because it means that you can build healthier relationships with your employees. Ben himself admits how his lack of self-awareness kept him from resolving an employee conflict as well as he’d like. He recalls:

“I remember there was one point where I was trying to resolve a conflict between two employees, and I just was like my head was somewhere else, my head was just like ‘This is the last thing on my to-do list, I just need to get this done, and then I can hop on a plane and go see my family.’”

Lastly, self-awareness is important for your growth and personal development as a leader. You can’t improve as a leader if you don’t know what to improve in. You have to see the current state of yourself clearly if you want to make any progress in getting better as a leader.

With self-awareness being so important, what are the ways you can actually improve your self-awareness in leadership?

How to improve your self-awareness as a leader

Assume positive intent.

One thing that Ben tries to keep in mind to improve his self-awareness as a leader is to assume good faith. When you feel yourself getting defensive and are not in a good mental state to receive feedback, stop and recognize it. Understand that the source of your resistance to what the other person is saying may be your poor assumption of the other person’s intention. You think they’re out to get you, or have ulterior motives. So assuming positive intent is a first step to bringing a sense of self-awareness to the situation: You may not being hearing things for what they are because you’re misreading the other person’s intention.

Hold up a mirror to yourself and your decisions.

Self-awareness naturally includes assessing yourself for your own mental models, biases, strengths and shortcomings, and the gaps in your perception of reality. Something that Peter Drucker, the well-known management expert, has recommended is: “Whenever you make a decision or take a key decision, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the results with what you expected.” Warren Buffet, in fact, practices a version of this with his investment decisions. This active reflection process helps create a deeper understanding for yourself. And by reflecting on your decisions and the outcomes, you can reach a more objective understanding of what’s working for you as a leader, and what’s not.

It’s not all about you.

Self-awareness isn’t just about reflecting inward, and delving into what you’re personally feeling. You have to understand what’s going on with the other person, as well. How might what’s happening at home or something that a family member is struggling with be affecting her performance? Does this person have preferences and reactions drastically different from your own? Don’t assume that this person wants to be treated the way you want to be treated. Embracing this nuance that everyone is not like you is a cornerstone of self-awareness as a leader. It’s not all about you — you must seek out to understand others’ perspectives.

Ask your team the tough questions.

If you really want to become self-aware, there are few better ways to accomplish this than asking your team. This means asking questions that you may be even hesitant to know the answer to. For instance, try asking, “When’s the last time something I did or said frustrated you?” Or, ask, “When’s the last time you felt unsupported as a member of the team?” When you defer to them to shed light on your tendencies, not only will you get helpful information to give you greater self-awareness, but you show them a willingness to become better as a leader. That, in itself, helps strengthen your bond with the rest of your team. Not sure exactly what to ask your team? Try a few of these questions to uncover your leadership blindspots.

Find an accountability partner.

For Ben, the most effective way for him to develop greater self-awareness as a leader was to hire an executive coach. For Ben, this was helpful for two reasons: (1) It created an accountability partner for him, helping him put into the practice the things he wanted to improve, and (2) it forced him to have a time to reflect every week, causing him to set aside time to deliberately to become more self-aware. Without this third-party intervening to keep Ben actively focusing on his own self-awareness, he doubts he would have made the same progress he did as a leader. Now, I’m not saying you need to go out and hire an executive coach tomorrow. Rather, a third-party serving as an accountability partner could be a friend, mentor, spouse or anyone outside the company. You simply need a buddy to help make sure you’re walking the walk when it comes to becoming more self-aware.


I’m so grateful that Ben admitted that self-awareness was his greatest leadership lesson. It was the reminder I needed to double-down on my own personal self-awareness. Without self-awareness, we fly blind as leaders. Choosing to know ourselves is truly our first step to becoming a better leader.


How to not take negative feedback personally at work

Three things to remember when you handle criticism in the workplace.

I often look like this when I take feedback personally.

I recently finished reading a book called, The Four Agreements. The title is a bit hokey. But the content is spot-on.

The book talks about the importance of creating personal freedom. One of these four agreements to create personal freedom is: “Don’t take things personally.”

This really hit home for me. I realized how often I take things personally — especially when it comes to giving and receiving feedback in the workplace.

Our tendency is to interpret the feedback we hear as a personal attack. It’s the biggest reason for why we don’t ask others for feedback.

When someone gives us feedback on our performance at work or about how our company is doing, we get an icky feeling in the pit of our stomach. “What?! How could this person think that?!”

We’re scared to hear something that we might not want to hear. So we avoid asking for feedback.

That’s a problem.

Not wanting to hear feedback means we shut ourselves off from information that will almost certainly be useful in some way.

In any piece of feedback, there is a nugget of helpful information. You’re guaranteed to learn something about a person or your company. Maybe it’s about how your actions are perceived by your employees, or the sentiment about a recent change you made to the company — that information is useful.

You don’t have to agree with the feedback, but you will learn something in listening to it.

The key is to not take feedback personally. Here’s how…

First, remind yourself: “It’s not all about me.”

There are other external forces shaping why a person may be giving you this feedback.

Maybe something happened earlier that day that caused them to be in a sour mood. Or, maybe something happened with their old boss that’s caused them to believe “this work environment sucks.” It has nothing to do with you.

Second, remind yourself: “I don’t need to be liked.”

You don’t need your employees to like you. You do need them to like their jobs and feel fulfilled and excited and motivated to work. But you don’t need them to like you as a person.

The minute you let go of the notion that you don’t need to be liked, by your employees, your leadership team, etc., your focus begins to shift toward what’s best for the company overall. Doing so allows you to open up and hear things that you might’ve previously taken personally.

Third, remind yourself of what you care about.

You do care about your company being successful. You do care about creating the best environment for your employees to thrive.

So if that’s the case, focus on hearing that feedback through the filter of:

“How can I listen for information that will help move my company forward?”

After all, that’s what you want. You want your company to do well. Listen for things that will help you meet that goal — everything else is secondary or irrelevant.

Granted, it’s incredibly hard to not take something personally.

But in reminding yourself of these three things — it’s not about you, you don’t need to be liked, and you care deeply about your company as a whole — you can begin to escape the trap of taking things personally.

By committing to not taking feedback personally, you open your mind to suggestions that could help your company. Employees will appreciate your willingness to ask for feedback — I promise.

You and your company will be so much better for it.