How to practically cultivate self-awareness as a leader | Resource

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How to practically cultivate self-awareness as a leader

by | Sep 26, 2023

We know from extensive research that self-awareness is the most important of all leadership skills. It’s the skill that helps us interrupt our reactive habits that take us away from our values. It’s what gives us the ability to manage the physical and emotional discomfort that comes from interrupting those habits. It unleashes us from our unseen limiting and destructive assumptions, thoughts and perceptions, and allows us to access our best self in times of pressure and stress.

Surprisingly, though, very few people know how to practically cultivate self-awareness. This is illustrated when we ask people a simple question: ‘If you were to practise self-awareness right now, what exactly would you do?’ 

We get all kinds of responses to this question, ranging from being aware of your impact on others, to thinking about your habits, asking for feedback, even following your breathing. But these answers miss the mark.

To be self-aware is to be mindful and conscious of what is going on inside us, then learning how to manage our experiences and habits to act more clearly, deliberately and wisely in real time, not after we have acted, when it’s too late. In other words, we radically increase our ability to be calmer and wiser in heated moments. This is what we call real-time self-awareness — the kind of self-awareness that is available to us in any given moment, which in turn allows us to regulate our thoughts, intentions, actions and reactions wisely in real-time. 


The four foundations of mindfulness


Awareness is paying attention. If we’re not paying attention to something, we lose awareness of it. Mindfulness training is about becoming continuously attentive and aware of our experience. 

To be self-aware means directing trained attention to what is going on inside us. But what exactly are we paying attention to? From mindfulness we learn that there are four aspects or realms of the self of which we can be aware. These are referred to as the ‘four foundations of mindfulness’:


  1. Mindfulness of the body/senses. This means being present to our internal physical sensations as we interact with our environment.
  2. Mindfulness of feeling tone. All our lived experiences can be classified as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. These three ‘feeling tones’ are inherent in everything we experience. Through mindfulness we look more closely at our relationship with our fast-brain reactions to these experiences. We naturally seek to avoid the unpleasant, embrace the pleasant and generally pay little attention to the neutral. Bringing mindful awareness to our default reactions is the first step in interrupting our conditioned responses to our experiences, and developing inner strength, empathy and connectedness.
  3. Mindfulness of thoughts. When we are unmindful, we associate and identify ourselves with our thoughts. Entranced by and subject to our own minds, we believe our thoughts represent objective truths (even though most of them are subjective assumptions and imagination). If our thinking is challenged by others, we feel personally challenged and quickly move to defend ourselves or rationalise. Mindfulness helps us to become more objective, less attached and more rational in our thinking. It helps us to stop defending our thoughts or ideas, which in turn allows us to truly test our thinking and discover new ways of thinking.
  4. Mindfulness of the way we make meaning. Our interpretations and the conclusions we draw from life experiences and what things mean are based on fundamental assumptions. Not only do we usually not question these assumptions, but often we’re not even aware of them. The fourth foundation is being aware of all the unconscious conditioning we’re subject to that validates our prejudices and worldview. It’s being mindful of our deeply held views, set ideas and unconscious biases — all the ways we filter reality. 


Once we become mindful of these four foundations, we are no longer possessed by them or pushed around helplessly by them. We gain greater control over our emotions and responses.


The first foundation of mindfulness: the body


Mindful meditation is often presented as a spiritual activity, but it is really a physical activity. When we get lost in the ‘there and then’ in our minds, we lose our felt connection with the body in the here and now. The body is always in the present. The more embodied we are, the more present and aware we are. It’s really that simple. 

The body includes all five physical senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. Mindfulness of the body includes the whole package of living within the physical world, of being fully present to this world and the people within it, rather than being lost in the isolation of our minds. Mindfulness of the body is about feeling ourselves as a body within this physical world, rather than imagining ourselves as a dream figure in our own fantasy.

When we’re grounded in the body, we find that our mind and emotions naturally self-regulate. When we’re lost in our dreams, we find ourselves swept along by feelings and thoughts that are disconnected from our reality. But when we cultivate the habit of being simply present within and as our body, then we find our emotions and thoughts stabilise. We’re quite literally grounded. In this state, we can deal with whatever challenges arise in the present without being knocked off balance by our thoughts and feelings or being lost in the past and future. This is why you’ll find we dedicate so much mindfulness training on body awareness in the bonus resources accompanying our programs.

When practising mindfulness of the body, we’re looking for a sense of acceptance in the body. This means we don’t deny the discomfort we feel; rather, we accept any sense of tension or discomfort and relax into it. As we relax, we become more sensitive to what is happening in the body, and this is the aim of our practice. We’re not trying to find something; we’re trying to actually experience what’s already happening at more profound levels. 


The second foundation of mindfulness: feeling tone


In the context of mindfulness our experience of reality can fall into one of three classes or feeling tones: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Eating your favourite food, or dreaming of a holiday is a pleasurable experience. Going to the dentist or worrying about paying off the mortgage generally feels unpleasant. A neutral experience might be something like brushing your teeth.

We have conditioned responses to each of these experiences. When we experience pleasant sensations, our automatic response is to want more, to cling to and become greedily attached to that experience. The conditioned response to unpleasant sensations is aversion and avoidance — we think, ‘anything but this’. The conditioned response to neutral experiences is to numb out or go into autopilot. For example, when brushing your teeth, you’re probably not particularly present. Most likely, your mind is wandering — you’re zoned out. Mindfulness refers to this as a state of delusion.

When we get caught up in and are ‘subject to’ these reactions — clinging to the pleasant, aversion to the unpleasant or delusion in the neutral — we are less present and connected with life. We are reacting to life, rather than truly making our own choices. This results in less life satisfaction and more suffering. 

With developmental mindfulness practices, we begin to see the reactivity apart from the actual unpleasant, pleasant or neutral experience. This is a huge milestone on the self-awareness journey. It enables genuine self-regulation. 

We develop the capacity to discern and differentiate our underlying conditioned, fast-brain reactions from what is objectively going on. This enables a vastly larger range of slow-brain prefrontal cortex choices. When we are receiving tough feedback, for example, we can notice the reactivity and tension in the body, and the defensive stories and aversive patterns at play. We can differentiate our aversive feelings from the reality of the feedback we are being given, lean into the discomfort and maintain curiosity, instead of being swept away in the aversive patterns to an unpleasant experience.


The third foundation of mindfulness: thoughts


The first foundation of mindfulness is being aware of sensations we feel in our physical body; the second is noticing our reactivity to experiences. The third foundation is being mindful of our thoughts. We may not be able to feel our thoughts directly, but we can notice them and see them as object, rather than being unconsciously subject to them and their effects. 

Often, however, our thoughts trigger physical and emotional sensations. For example, think of someone who has really hurt you, and focus on a particularly hurtful experience with this person. As you’re sitting there thinking about that experience, do you notice any emotions arise? Do those emotions register physically? Do you feel any tension or heat in your body? 

The more we can make our thoughts object to us, the less they control us. We can notice them without reacting to them or believing they are true. 


The fourth foundation of mindfulness: the way we make meaning


What we think and feel, our thoughts and emotions, are often the result of unseen, unquestioned assumptions we make about life. For example, suppose that as a result of my upbringing I have developed the unconscious assumption that everyone is judging me. Without even understanding it, I’ll go through life being triggered by everyone I believe is judging me. I’ll see judgement where it really doesn’t exist. 

The problem isn’t that our assumptions are necessarily wrong; rather, it’s that they are hidden and therefore control us without our conscious awareness. 

Once we become mindful of these four foundations, we are no longer possessed by them or pushed around helplessly by them. Mindfulness is the key to liberating ourselves from the incessant push and pull of our physical sensations, emotions and thoughts. It helps us to start noticing our self-defeating habitual patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour through the lens of objective mindfulness. Thus we are able to start stepping free of them and become a calmer, wiser leader.

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