Lesson 12: Self-Awareness Is the Leadership Differentiator


Putting strong leaders in place at your company is most likely always a top priority. I very rarely work with businesses that tell me they are batting 1.000 across their departmental leadership teams.

Typically, it’s an area of significant weakness, especially at young, fast-growing technology companies. Most young tech companies are taking a chance. Hiring someone who has potential, but not the experience, or promoting a top performer from within. They expect that the superstar contributor will make a superstar leader, and everyone else superstars as well.

It doesn’t always work out that way though, does it? Leadership is a different ballgame. One that requires a much different set of skills. Shouldn’t most top performers be able to learn those skills though? Why do some learn and apply, when others don’t?

Before we dive in and figure out why, let’s make two assumptions that will help us eliminate some outlier cases. Let’s first assume that all of the people that have been promoted or hired in have good intentions. They want to succeed in the role.

Next, let’s assume that these people will actively attempt to get better. If someone is not doing that, you’ve made a mistake. You should move that person out of the role and replace them with someone who wants to get better. If we feel comfortable with those assumptions then, in my opinion, you need to next evaluate a skills fit.

While skills can vary by department or role, it’s usually safe to assume that there is a combination of hard skills and soft skills that someone must have in order to be successful. But even most skills can be learned.

Head to the self-improvement section on Amazon. You’ll find thousands of titles on listening, negotiating, culture, morale, coaching, etc. Given our assumption that people have good intentions and want to get better, then they should read those books, get some coaching, and magically get better. Right?

But that doesn’t always happen either. Why? In my experience, it’s because certain people don’t actually BELIEVE that they need to get better in specific areas, even when data, anecdotal feedback and peer reviews strongly suggest otherwise.

They lack self-awareness of their own deficiencies. They do not have the ability to ingest feedback when they are convinced that they already have the necessary skills in areas where others see them lacking.

How do you tease this out in your current leaders? Look for the following indicators:

  1. When you give constructive feedback, look for responses that begin in “Yeah, but…”. They are looking to defend their stake in the ground….looking to combat any other viewpoint.

  2. People who ARE self-aware use phrases such as, “That’s a fair point” or “I didn’t think of that”, or “I stand corrected”. Those are phrases someone uses when taking other opinions or solutions into consideration.

  3. The biggest indicator is a disconnect between peer feedback and self-feedback. When someone gets a “poor” or “needs improvement” rating on a peer review, but gives themself a “Strongly exceeds expectations” on their self-review, you have trouble brewing. Huge disconnect.

By avoiding leaders who lack self-awareness, you’ll build a leadership team that is constantly open to feedback, and striving to get better in areas they actually need to focus on. This is my opinion after managing over 200 people in my career…but hey…I’m open to feedback if you disagree ;-)