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Great Leadership: 3 Keys to Self-Observation

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My experience with leaders is that what helps you as a person almost always translates to helping you as a leader. When you transform as a person, you engage in the personal abilities that help anyone to be a better influencer. The ability to connect, to be clear about your responsibilities, to know your values, and to deal with failure—they all improve life, family, work, and leadership. The physics of those areas are similar. They certainly aren’t all that is involved, for leadership also requires many specific competencies, and the experience and training it takes to develop those competencies. But you can’t lose in leadership by growing as a person.

A small business owner I know became involved in his own personal growth process, initially to improve his leadership abilities. However, as it so often happens, he not only got better in leading, but he also became a better person. His wife told me, “I want to make sure he budgets time and money for his growth for a while. He says he’s better at work, but the kids and I think he’s better at home too.”

You simply can’t separate yourself as a leader from yourself as a person.

Become Self-Observant

To access the growing part of you, you also need the ability to self-observe. It is important that you acquire the habit of regularly looking at what you do, and how you do it.

Psychologists call this capacity the observing ego, and it is a very helpful part of your mind. In self-observation, you dispassionately monitor your behaviors, words, emotions, and attitudes. It is as if you are watching yourself from a distance, as a character in a movie.

Then, having observed what you are doing, you are more able to change and improve what is needed. I referred to being able to observe the way you think, for example, in chapter 2. Self-observation often creates movement in personal growth. We engage in changing what we observe, what we know, and what we experience.

Let’s take a look at three keys to successful self-observation.

Key to Self-Observation #1: Seeing How You Affect Others

We are all like stones thrown into a river. Our attitude and actions have a ripple effect that impacts all those around us. This is especially true with leaders. We make a difference in the attitudes, thoughts, and values of those we lead. You must pay close attention to the effect you have on others, or you will cease to have the impact you desire. That is why the chapter on your relational world is so critical for you as a leader. The more relational you are, the better you can see your impact on others.

For example, a corporate executive I know was so committed to self-observation that he became highly attuned to the nuances of his direct reports. He once told me, “I knew I had come down too hard on Sam at the meeting. I reviewed the meeting in my mind afterward and saw myself grinding unnecessarily on him. And Sam became a little reserved, enough that I noticed he was acting differently toward me. So we talked afterward, and I was right. I hadn’t motivated him; I discouraged him. I apologized, and we’re OK now. But I would have missed that before I paid attention to this.”

This may sound like a little thing. The direct report was a mature and experienced professional also. He would have dealt with the discouragement and moved on. He didn’t need handholding. But look at the other side: by spending a couple of minutes being self-observant, the executive was able to invest a little time in a valuable person and resolve a little thing that could have become a big thing later.

Key to Self-Observation #2: Being Able to See the Negative

We wouldn’t need to be self-observant if we batted a thousand. The observing ego can certainly help us celebrate our improvements, strengths, and successes, but the larger benefit is in seeing the mistakes, as in the example above. This is sometimes difficult for leaders who are under so much pressure to produce results. And many leaders tend to be highly self-critical, so the idea of looking at mistakes can be very uncomfortable. Then there are some leaders who live for the good news about themselves; they aren’t aware of the negative, which is a form of narcissism.

Whatever the reason, you must be able to face and deal with your weaknesses. The negative realities about yourself that you avoid today are the same ones that can ruin your leadership tomorrow. You are better off the sooner you become accustomed to this reality. It will be worth it. Have enough grace and courage to look at your felonies—your major flaws and errors—as well as your minor ones. You will then be in a position to transform yourself.

Key to Self-Observation #3: Experiencing the Present During the Present

Your ability to observe what you are doing as you are doing it is invaluable. The shorter the time lapse between what you do and when you notice it, the better your adjustments and self-corrections. This is also called being “in the moment.” The task is not as easy as it may sound. Leaders can be so future-minded that they miss what is going on around them. I knew, for example, that a small business owner friend of mine was on his way when he said to me when I was talking to him, “Sorry, I wasn’t listening just now. I was thinking about a cash flow issue I’m working with.” It was a good sign that he was observing at that time what he was doing.

Be a self-observer. Don’t let a day go by in which you haven’t spent a few minutes replaying the videos of your actions with people. Notice the patterns and deal with them.

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Join the Conversation

How important is it for you to be self-observant and aware of your strengths and weaknesses? Leave your comments below. We’d love to hear what you think.

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