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Self-Awareness: The Starting Point of All Personal Development

by | Sep 28, 2022

All too often, we try to develop leaders by giving them new skills, tools and techniques. But none of these can inspire deep, fundamental, lasting change in leaders. The most fundamental and important aspect of all personal and leadership development is self-awareness.

A self-aware person can view their thoughts, emotions, conditioned patterns and reactions objectively. Through the development of self-awareness, we become present, lucid, compassionate, honest, curious, committed and transformational. The greater our self-awareness, the greater our capacity to align our behaviour with our noblest intentions and values.

Conversely, the less self-aware we are, the more we are subject to our unconscious thoughts, beliefs and assumptions as well as the conditioned patterns and behaviours that move us away from our best self with all of its potential.

Nurturing and protecting an image involves a fundamental confusion in the mind. As a result of childhood conditioning, what people think of us comes to determine our self-worth, and slowly but surely we disconnect from our core and become lost in patterns that soothe that loss. This is why the journey into authenticity and self-awareness is both challenging and extraordinarily rewarding. It’s our journey back home to ourselves. We come to see that image management is exhausting and sustains a perpetual sense of imposter syndrome.

Leaders who embrace the self-awareness journey become a beacon of growth and psychological safety for those around them. Instead of denying their mistakes, they are honest with themselves and others. They are interested, even excited, by seeing behaviours in themselves that are not working and they are courageous enough to admit it. Instead of justifying, ignoring and denying actions that hold them back from deeper insight and wiser choices, they want to understand where, how and why they’re falling short on their values and aspirations. And by doing so they give others the safety and permission to do the same.

Paul Spittle, Chief Commercial Officer of General Medicines at the biopharmaceutical firm Sanofi, explained the relationship between self-awareness and vertical growth when he told me, ‘Vertical growth is having a better understanding of your thoughts, emotions and behaviours. And related to that, allowing yourself to accept some things that you wish weren’t true about your behaviour and thinking, then asking, What do I do about that? How do I use that? We have an incredible capacity to deny the worst things about our behaviour, but if we can’t face these things, we can’t work on them or develop further.’

Paul’s colleague Kevin Callanan, a Senior Vice President of Sanofi, added, ‘For me, vertical growth is being able to stop and look at situations and my emotions. The more I look, the more I can separate my ego or wants and desires from what is best for the team or organisation as a whole. I have more clarity and I make better, more informed decisions. I also have more empathy towards others and inner peace.

‘And that’s not an easy thing to do, especially for someone like me who has a thirst for action and a thirst to respond. So there’s always that inner conflict between my immediate desire to move quickly and get things done, and my desire to slow down and be more conscious and deliberate.’

Cultivating our capacity for growth is a lifelong journey, not a short course. Leadership expert John C. Maxwell recounts, ‘The first year I engaged in intentional personal growth, I discovered that it was going to be a lifetime process. During that year, the question in my mind changed from “How long will this take?” to “How far can I go?”.’

But how do we intentionally grow, particularly as adults, when our beliefs and behaviours have become ingrained in us? What does it even mean to grow? And how does it work in groups and organisations?

Intentional vertical growth requires us to be deliberately developmental, meaning we apply conscious and deliberate practices that help us grow as human beings. When leaders become deliberately developmental, it becomes possible to do this growth work as an entire organisation. Kegan and Lahey call this a Deliberately Developmental Organisation (DDO).

Cultivating inner psychological safety

As Sanultivating self-awareness inevitably elicits a deeper level of honesty with ourselves. We begin to see the full range of our thoughts, assumptions, feelings and behaviours, much of which we were previously in denial about or numb to. When we do, our most common response is to judge and reprimand ourselves for our ‘bad’ feelings, thoughts, assumptions and behaviours. As a result, we very quickly lose two of the most important vertical growth tools: curiosity and compassion.

There can be no learning or new insight without curiosity. As the great depth psychologist A. H. Almaas said in a lecture I attended, ‘Without the emotional safety compassion provides us, we very quickly lose interest in uncovering difficult truths we need to deal with. It’s too painful to look at, so instead we shut down and go back to familiar coping mechanisms such as blaming others, denying and numbing.’

This is why we must encourage self-compassion and curiosity around why this behaviour is present. Self-compassion gives us a space of inner psychological safety, which enables our natural curiosity and intelligence to come to the fore. This compassion and curiosity also enables us to boldly try new behaviours, to stumble, to take chances and experiment, to learn and grow without that harsh inner critic beating us up over the inevitable mistakes we make.

Self-compassion expert Kristin Neff, co-founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, states the obvious: ‘Self-compassion is a healthy way of dealing with the pain of life. By definition, there’s no downside to it.’

Margaret Dean, at Novartis Oncology, shared with me how easy it is for her to shame herself when she sees herself falling into the same old controlling, image management patterns with her team members. Mindfulness has taught her to interrupt this pattern in the moment. She said, ‘I always compound my behaviour by beating myself up, which only makes things worse. For me it feels like a shameful feeling, like I need to take a shower. My brain asks over and over, Why did you just do that? Why didn’t I see that in the moment? But I’m learning to tell myself, That’s part of being human. It’s okay. Everyone screws up once in a while. And I can hold it more lightly and more easily look at my behaviour with curiosity and interest instead of judgement and shame.’

Psychological safety is also vital for growth, innovation and trust in a team setting. We will discuss in great detail how to create an environment of psychological safety in Part III. In our experience, leaders who learn to cultivate self-compassion for themselves then become more caring and compassionate with their teams.

UC-Berkeley professor of psychology Serena Chen writes in a 2018 HBR article,

‘The fact that self-compassion encourages a growth mindset is also relevant here… Research shows that when leaders adopt a growth mindset…they’re more likely to pay attention to changes in subordinates’ performance and to give useful feedback… Subordinates, in turn, can discern when their leaders have growth mindsets, which makes them more motivated…’

Research on vertical growth and mindful leadership

The process and practices I detail for vertical growth have been developed over many years. They are the synthesis of a staggering amount of research and a wide variety of leadership cognitive and behavioural sciences as well as mindfulness disciplines.

I started teaching elements of this transformational leadership work in 2001. In 2008 I integrated Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s ‘five practices of exemplary leadership’ because I wanted more research around my own leadership work. Kouzes and Posner’s work is incredibly well researched. Over the past 30 years they have accumulated data that now includes 5000 individual case studies, five million survey respondents, data from 70 countries and 700 research studies by others. Based on rigorous testing of reliability and validity, it’s the most independently researched leadership model on Earth.

In 2015, I co-authored a book with Kouzes and Posner, drawing on their five leadership practices and their application in the Australia and New Zealand context. In 2016, I published two more books, The Mindful Leader and A Practical Guide to Mindful Meditation.

The Mindful Leader owes its foundations to the extensive leadership research by Kouzes and Posner and introduces two additional leadership skills, self-awareness and accountability, alongside vertical growth elements.

When The Mindful Leader was published, we created a 360° assessment to measure and research the mindful leadership practices themselves, and we added correlation outcomes, such as engagement and mental health. We wanted to measure the impact of leaders applying mindful leadership on key personal and organisational outcomes. Our first study involved 328 self-assessments and 3380 overall responses in some of the biggest companies in the world.

What we found was that the percentage of engagement accounted for by mindful leadership is an astonishing 40.16 per cent. This essentially means that for every 10 per cent a leader improves in these mindful leadership practices, their direct reports are 4 per cent more engaged. Nothing impacts organisational performance more than leadership — particularly mindful leadership.

We also found that a third of people’s mental health can be explained by their bosses’ behaviour, as measured in these mindful leadership practices. So leaders who improve their mindful leadership increase not only the engagement but also the mental wellbeing of their team members.

To support these findings, we have developed a training program and online course, which we have called The Mindful Leader: Vertical Growth Program. It’s available on our Awakened Mind mobile app and is used by leaders all over the world. Our initial research showed that those who used the program improved their team’s psychological safety, trust, growth mindset and values-based behaviours by 31 per cent over a 16-week period.

I share these resources with you to demonstrate that the principles of conscious development and mindful leadership are real, tangible and measurable. Furthermore, they are learnable by anyone willing to accept the challenge of self-awareness.

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