Awareness of Self

From a Whole Systems perspective, leadership is not just what you do. It is who you are. Your interior condition—everything from your emotional state to your breath—has an influence on your communication with others. With awareness of self you can regulate your interior condition, which ripples through your behavior and actions. 

In his book Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, Otto Scharmer tells the story of a conversation with the late CEO of Hanover Insurance, Bill O’Brien.

“He told me that his greatest insight after years of conducting organizational learning projects and facilitating corporate change is that the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener. That observation struck a chord. Bill helped me understand that what counts is not only what leaders do and how they do it but their ‘interior condition,’ the inner place from which they operate or the source from which all of their actions originate.” 

Why Awareness of Self Is Important

  • Self-awareness is fundamental to leadership in changing conditions. Changing conditions bring unexpected surprises that often trigger strong emotion. With self-awareness you regulate your emotions and responses. Once you know where you tend to be rigid, you can choose to be more flexible. Once you know where you tend to be wishy-washy, you can choose to be consistent. Self-awareness enables you to choose your behavior. 

    Your ability to appropriately choose when to be flexible and when to be firm gives you resilience and stability even in the midst of change. Your resilience and stability has a profound influence not just on your own heart and mind, but on the hearts and minds of those around you, and the people around them. 
  • Self-awareness develops acceptance and openness. Self-awareness helps you understand what you value and how you perceive the world around you. Once you have perspective on your own values and views, it is easier to accept that others may have differing values and views. 

    This openness is essential for engaging authentically and effectively with diverse constituents. Additionally, the ability to engage well with diverse stakeholders is critical for Whole Systems Leadership.

Self-Awareness Generates Possibilities

Developing self-awareness is the necessary beginning to developing skillful ways to respond to situations. If you are not aware of your motivations, feelings, and beliefs you cannot make different choices about how to behave.

Until you know how you are actually reacting, you can’t adapt. But once you are self-aware you can choose new behaviors. With more choices, you develop a broader behavioral palette. This broader palette enables you to act with authenticity and responsiveness even in difficult situations, and to invite others to do the same.

Developing Awareness of Self

Mindfulness practice is a valuable process for cultivating awareness of self. This awareness training happens both on the meditation cushion and in everyday life. To start, try simply noticing what is going on in your body. Do you feel open and relaxed or heavy and tight? How is your breathing? Noticing physical cues can help bring you into the current moment and recognize emotions.

Another way to practice mindfulness is called “noting,” during which you label how you are feeling, as the emotions flow. You might note that you are anxious, angry, reassured, or calm. Practice this in many situations, so you develop your ability to recognize your comfort levels and reactions in different contexts. 

Awareness of Self as System

You are part of many human systems – your family, neighborhood, work, or learning community. But you are also a system yourself – one as complex as any you engage in. The more awareness you have of the multiple dimensions of yourself as a system, the more skillfully you can interact with larger systems you are a part of. That means understanding everything from where you tend to focus your attention to how you handle failure.

“To understand your personal system, you have to take stock of many different things: your personality, life experiences, cognitive and other skills, and emotional makeup. You also need to appreciate that your behaviors and decisions stem not just from forces within yourself as a system but also from forces acting on you in any given organizational situation.”  - The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and Your World

Some people assume that “authenticity” means always saying and doing the same things no matter who you are with or where you are. But people and human systems are much more complex than that. Someone’s parent is also someone else’s child. The teacher is also the learner. We are volunteers and workers, citizens and consumers, siblings and friends.

Staying True to Yourself in Many Roles

How do you stay true to yourself in your many roles? With self-awareness you can come to understand how you are coherent and integrated, as well as how each role influences your thoughts, feelings and actions. In other words, how you are a complex, adaptive system. 

The authors of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and Your World describe the importance of understanding yourself as a system and accepting that you are actually multiple “yous”:

“You have to understand not only the larger system you step into but also yourself in its full complexity, multiplicity, and inconsistency. And then you have to think about how the two systems interact…When you understand that you have more than one identity, you begin to see possibilities you could not see before.”

Reflective Question: Who Are You?

Bring to mind several different groups you are part of—at work, at home, or with friends. Do you think, feel, and behave the exact same way when you are around each group?

One Example of Self as System

Jane is a community organizer who is deeply respected by many—from cultural community centers to public policy centers. The diversity of groups Jane works with is a powerful combination. Her relationships in the community keep her close to the ground where she witnesses how policy decisions affect people’s everyday lives. Her relationships with policy makers give her a broad impact. 

To remain effective in these diverse worlds, Jane adapts. From her vocabulary to her clothing, Jane shifts how she presents herself depending upon whom she hopes to connect with. She even carries different outfits in her car and sometimes changes her clothes during the day because, while a suit lends credibility at the state capitol, her jeans make her more accessible in the neighborhood. 

No matter which language she uses (or which outfit she wears), Jane feels like herself and others perceive her as “just Jane.” There’s a steadiness about her that gives Jane an aura of “trustworthiness.”

Jane attributes both her adaptability and her steadiness to her mindfulness practice. From the moment she wakes up in the morning until she goes to sleep at night, Jane aspires to be aware of what she feels and thinks. She is aware of her surroundings and the impact she has on others. She knows herself and others well enough to make skillful choices about how she communicates. Jane’s work on behalf of her communities is well-served by her commitment to a sustaining blend of mindfulness, flexibility, and consistency.

Exercises & Further Reading

Exercises to Deepen Understanding

References and Further Reading

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., McKee, A. (2004). Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Harvard Business Press.

Leider, R. (2010). The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.