When you are teaching leadership to someone, what do you start with? I thought about that question a lot in the past few weeks and came up with some possible answers, like start teaching with a list of traits and principles, or a list of core values, or perhaps a vision statement…
What answer did I settle on? The one I believe my experience taught me is the right place to start?
For maintaining excellent leadership over a sustained period of time, one should be self-aware. There’s plenty in my experience that supports this thought. I was given the amazing opportunity to mentor commanding officers in the Marine Corps several times, most notably when they were company and battalion or squadron commanders. I had to think hard on how I could bring value to a group of professionals like that. When I began mentoring them, I learned to start with coaching on self-awareness. This also allowed me to emphasize the importance of being yourself when in a leadership position. (I’m sure more than one Old Salt out there smiled when reading that, as they remember the almost mystical quality young Marines have of seeing through leaders who are trying to be someone – or something – they are not.) Being Yourself is a natural way to approach leadership, and it’s longer lasting, too.
Self-awareness is the twin of Being Yourself for a leader. To be clear, Being Yourself is not a ticket to stop improving. We can always learn more, demonstrate better habits, communicate more clearly… Leaders should strive to be the best possible version of themselves. But to become that best version, one must also be self-aware. Famed leadership consultant Peter Drucker wrote a fabulous article called “Managing Oneself.” In it he emphasized the importance of knowing your strengths & weaknesses, and how you learn best (Reading? Listening? etc). His message is clear, you have to know yourself if you want to get better – that’s part of self-awareness.
Self-awareness is a powerful leadership tool, and I think that’s where we should start when we want to teach leadership – or if we want to be better leaders ourselves.