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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Huffington Post: Self Awareness: Key to Sustainable Leadership

From Huffington Post, posted September 9, 2015

In 2007, Arianna Huffington’s career was on a rapid upward trajectory. After building the Huffington Post as the leading online global newspaper, Time chose her as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People.

Then she had a wake-up call. One day she found herself lying on the floor of her home office in a pool of blood. She had collapsed from exhaustion.

The gravity of her collapse forced Huffington to confront her lifestyle. As she explained, “I was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. By traditional measures of money and power, I was highly successful, but by any sane definition I was not living a successful life. Something had to change radically.”

For Huffington, this moment of crisis pushed her to reflect on her life. As her self-awareness deepened, she made important life changes: focusing on her personal health, meditating daily and committing to time for herself.

The charge, “Know thyself,” is centuries old, but for today’s leaders, it has never been more important. Research from psychologist Daniel Goleman shows that self-awareness is crucial for all levels of success. As he outlines in Emotional Intelligence, above an IQ of 120, EQ (Emotional Intelligence) becomes the more important predictor of successful leaders. Developing self-awareness is the first step to develop your EQ.

My grandfather — an old Dutchman who came to America in 1876 — had a worn wooden plaque that read, “We grow too soon old, and too late wise.” As a young man, I rejected this notion as I lacked the self-awareness to understand my limitations, blind spots, and inexperience. Over the years, its truth has come back to me many times.

When True North was published in 2007, we understood the importance of self-awareness, but were not clear about how to improve our awareness. As demonstrated in my follow-on book, Discover Your True North, we have learned a great deal since then about how to gain self-awareness.

Crises like Huffington’s can force you to reassess your life to gain self-awareness and discover your True North. But you can avoid these crises by developing self-awareness now. After in-depth interviews with 170 world leaders and classroom discussions with 6,000 executives and MBAs in Authentic Leadership Development (ALD) at Harvard Business School, we’ve learned three essential steps to building your self-awareness:

  1. Probing deeply into your life story and framing your crucible
  2. Creating a daily practice of introspection and reflection
  3. Receiving intimate feedback from people you trust

Understanding your life story and framing your crucible

Your journey to self-awareness begins with understanding your life story and framing your crucibles. All of us face times of crisis, pain, disappointment, or rejection during our lives. Many respond by developing false selves and building protective layers to protect themselves from pain or facing their reality. In doing so, they grow farther from their true selves and building on their life stories.

Reflecting on the life you’ve lived helps you to discover your True North – the beliefs, values and principles that are most important to you. Discover Your True North asks readers to consider these questions:

  • Looking at your early life story, what people, events, and experiences have had the greatest impact in shaping the person you have become?
  • In which experiences did you find the greatest passion for leading?
  • How do you frame your crucibles and setbacks in your life?

These questions are starting points to become aware. As you understand your life story, the reasons for your current actions become clear. Digging into your crucible is especially important: do you see yourself as a victim? do you repress the experience? Or can you reframe hardship to help find your deeper values? 

Create a daily habit of self-reflection

Next, you should develop a daily practice of setting aside at least twenty minutes to reflect on your life. This practice enables you to focus on the important things in your life, not just the immediate. Reflection takes many forms. Some keep a journal, some pray, and others take a long walk or jog. Personally, I use daily meditation as my mindful habit. By centering into myself, I am able to focus my attention on what’s really important, and develop an inner sense of well-being.

Seek Honest Feedback
Nearly all of us have traits, habits, and tendencies that others see in us, but we are unable to see in ourselves. We call these “blind spots.” Do you see yourself as others see you? If not, your blind spots can be addressed by receiving honest feedback from people you trust.

To obtain honest feedback, you must surround yourself with truth tellers. Then you must continuously others for feedback. As you do, you’ll become more self-aware.

Although a traumatic event can cause you to become self-aware, my advice is don’t wait until that happens — start developing your self-awareness now. As you follow these three practices, you will find you are more comfortable being open, transparent, and even vulnerable. As you do, you will become a more authentic leader.