Self-awareness: The gateway to transformational leadership - Leadership Development Blog | The Mindful Leader

The goal of transformational leadership is to transform individual behaviour, organisational culture, and entrenched systems for the better.

However, we cannot effectively inspire external change if we’re not willing to transform ourselves internally. True transformational leadership is an inside-out job.

Self-transformation is the product of self-awareness; we cannot change anything until we’re aware of it.

Mindfulness answers the practical question of how to develop self-awareness as we strive for transformational leadership.

The only way you can become self-aware in real time is to be aware of your body, your feelings and emotions, your thoughts and your deeply held views. There is nothing else you can be ‘self-aware’ of.

When we develop an authentic mindfulness practice, we implicitly build our self-awareness. Without mindfulness, it’s impossible to develop enough self-awareness to genuinely transform our behaviour.

The four foundations of mindfulness, then, are the practical application of self-awareness.

To illustrate how the four foundations of mindfulness can be applied in the context of self-awareness and transformational leadership, I’ll share a personal story.

I used to judge people quite a lot, especially silently in my mind. After being told how damaging this habit was, I decided to practise mindfulness to do something about it.

1. Becoming mindful of my body, I noticed when I was having critical thoughts.

I felt tense, sometimes even mildly nauseated. Mindfulness of the body usually gives us the first clue we are up to something that is increasing our suffering (and often that of others).

2. When I started being mindful of my body, I noticed a pervasive emotion of anger.

The feeling tone of anger is unpleasant. I noticed my reaction to this unpleasant emotion was aversion. I used to idealise myself (delusionally) as a totally anger-free person.

Whereas previously I would push my angry emotions away in a desperate attempt to keep my precious self-image intact, I was now able to be honest with myself and own up to my anger.

3. I finally became aware of the critical thoughts that accompanied the emotion of anger.

I examined them objectively, as if they were not mine, without blaming or judging myself. I stopped buying into them and engaging with them as if they were objective truth.

4. On deeper investigation (another quality of mindfulness), I was able to recognise the unexamined assumption behind my critical thoughts.

My assumption was that by criticising others I would feel superior and more worthy of connection and love.

You can no doubt see the irony, but this is the sort of irrational thinking by which we live when we are not mindful. We engage in unexamined thoughts and behaviours that are truly unhelpful to ourselves and others.

After really seeing this in the bright light of mindfulness the habit began to dissolve.

Stages of Mindfulness Development

My first mentor shared a personal story to teach me how mindfulness can develop in stages over time.

He used to drive an old Rolls-Royce with roll-down windows. When someone would cut in front of him he would roll his window down, stick his head out, yell a few choice words at the other driver and make a rude hand signal.

One day this happened when he was driving with his elderly mother. When he pulled back inside and rolled the window up his mother said, ‘I wish you would stop that. You’re embarrassing me.’

He immediately started arguing with her, rationalising and defending his behaviour, until she finally insisted that he just take her home.

The next few times he drove the same thing happened. It took him a while before he finally started becoming mindful of the habit. He worked through the following four stages toward overcoming it:

Stage 1: No real mindfulness.

Initially he had no awareness and therefore no accountability for his actions.

Stage 2: Mindfulness too late.

He started noticing what happened after he rolled his window back up. ‘Oops,’ he would think, ‘I’ve done it again.’ There hasn’t yet been any real behaviour change, but there has definitely been progress. It takes a lot of courage to continue going at this point, especially since we tend to shame ourselves a lot here.

Stage 3: Mindful of the impulse.

The next time someone cut him off, he recognised his body’s urge to react. He would feel the itch to move his hand and reach for the handle. His heart rate would rise.

On one occasion, he didn’t become aware until he felt the breeze on his face as he began to stick his head out the window. Mindful of the physical impulse, he was able to catch himself.

This is why mindfulness of the body is so critical. It interrupts our reactive behaviour and gives us our best selves—what is needed for transformational leadership.

Stage 4: Dissolution of the impulse and habit.

Through mindfulness over time, he was able to conquer the self-defeating habit. Mindfulness can take us all the way into complete freedom.

We may still have traces of repeat offending, but they are increasingly rare as our mindfulness grows.

Transformational leadership depends on self-awareness. And self-awareness can only be achieved through the four foundations of mindfulness.