It is crucial for leaders to have a circle of supporters who can keep them in touch with reality, according to writer Bill George.
In a 1 September Forbes interview,  George – a former senior figure at the US Department of Defense and Honeywell, and now author of authenticity guide Find Your True North – says: “Many leaders don’t have much self-awareness, and self-awareness is the core of authenticity – of knowing who you are and of knowing your True North. Clarity on your True North requires humility and learning from the crucibles you faced earlier in life.
“Self-awareness is the key to everything. It definitely can be developed, and leaders need to work on it through honest introspection and receiving honest feedback.”
George notes that “…some people don’t want feedback. And if you don’t want it you won’t get it. You can remain clueless and just do your own thing”. But he points out: “Feedback from your boss can certainly be helpful, but feedback from your subordinates and peers can be especially valuable. They see you every day. They see the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“It’s important that you really listen to people trying to give you honest feedback. I’m a big believer in processes that provide written feedback on things that people may not wish to tell you in person.”
George stresses: “Having a support team is supremely important … It’s important to have someone who will pull you back down to earth if you’re getting too high on yourself and who can provide encouragement if you get too down on yourself.”
What sort of criteria should leaders use to select the people who will form their reality-check support teams?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Research spearheaded by Meredith Belbin indicates that the best teams are composed of different types of people. And we at the Institute say this repeatedly: leaders do need to surround themselves with colleagues whose worldviews are different from their own. You may have a shared passion about the purpose of the organisation and what it’s trying to deliver. But individual team members’ motivations for wanting to join in and deliver on that purpose are often very different.”
Cooper stresses: “when those close colleagues disagree with you, it’s important to find out why, and to be genuinely interested – because it’s not wrong, it’s just different to how you think. It’s bringing you a new perspective. You have to trust the motivations of the people from whom you’ve requested the feedback. Recent work that has questioned the ‘truth’ of emotional intelligence points out that it is often very difficult to gauge one’s own levels of emotion and reason, and the interplay between the two. So we need other people to help us ‘triangulate’ our self-awareness.
“Indeed,” she adds, “self-awareness is the first of the Institute’s 49 Dimensions of Leadership, in the subset of Authenticity. But it’s not the case that you eventually ‘get’ self-aware and then that’s it – job done. Different experiences will affect us in ways that we are not anticipating, and those curveballs will surprise us. So our self-awareness is an ongoing piece of work – and sense-checking it with the people around us is incredibly helpful.”
For further thoughts on self-awareness, check out these learning resources from the Institute
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