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The 4 Things I’d Tell My Younger Self About Self-Aware Leadership

Or, Why My Team Used To Hate My Guts — And How I Won Them Back

starting blocks on an athletic track

My name is John and I'm a competitor. I’ve played to win as long as I can remember.

Competitiveness is usually a desirable trait in business. But in my early days, my style caused me a lot of grief, alienation, and even lost revenue.

My first big post-MBA gig was CFO of a $60 million foreign subsidiary at a revered global company. I was responsible for all financial operations, from accounting and financial planning to tax and treasury. But my new team desperately needed a turnaround. Skills simply weren't up to par. It was a fantastic opportunity for a guy looking to make a name for himself. Which I was.

Suddenly the stakes got higher. Our subsidiary was anointed HQ for a country “cluster," absorbing two other subsidiaries and an additional export market. Now I had three teams in a $200 million organization spread across five countries.

Did I rise to the challenge? Absolutely. And I did it all fast. I created a shared-services center, saving the company millions. I cleaned up accounting messes and ensured strict adherence to accounting policy. I slashed accounts receivable, generating millions in cash flow. I dramatically improved sales forecast accuracy.

And Everyone Hated My Guts

While I was improving company operations on virtually every key financial metric, I was also alienating my executive colleagues. I realized eventually that most of them hated my guts. Why? Because instead of battling the company's rivals, I was competing against my teammates. It didn't matter that they were VPs of sales, marketing, logistics — or even the CEO.

I wasn't malicious. I just wanted to outshine everyone. I said I was working to achieve the company's goals, but in truth, I was more focused on making myself and my finance team look good. My motivation was about my objectives and my team.

The results of this ego-centric approach were predictable. On the heels of previously strong growth, company sales sputtered during my four-year tenure. I did nothing to increase revenue for the company. Through my militant enforcement of policies, procedures, and controls, sales and marketing developed a severe distaste for finance — and for me. The subsidiary CEO could barely conceal his disdain when I walked into a room.

Years later, the VP of logistics told me there had never been more antagonism and infighting than during my time there. Yikes.

How strong (or weak) are your awareness muscles?

Maybe you've exhibited ego-centric leadership, or witnessed it, or been party to it. Here’s a clue: If people in your company complain about “silos," you almost certainly have a culture of ego-centric leadership.

This type of competitive leadership is not uncommon. During my 25 years in senior roles at Fortune 100 companies, and in my work as an executive coach, I've seen this movie play out all too many times.

But most people want to do the right thing. They want to live in a way that is congruent with their values. So when I observe a gap between clients' behaviors and their values, I find it’s usually because they haven’t learned how to habitually exercise their awareness muscles — self-awareness, interpersonal awareness, or situational awareness.

To develop stronger awareness, you must proactively seek feedback from people who know you well and have your best interests at heart. Then get expert help to interpret and act on that input.

My non-scientific observation is that about 80% of your self-perception agrees with others’ perceptions of you.

But it’s the 20% disagreement that holds your gold. This is where you’ll find your blind spots: the traits, behaviors, and perceptions of which you're genuinely unaware. Shining light on these nuggets offers opportunities you've never experienced before.

The 4 Essential Steps to Self-Aware Leadership

Over the years, I sought out the best mentors and coaches I could find. They've helped me see myself in ways I never understood before. Sometimes that hurt, but it has been worth it. I'm convinced I would never have served in senior leadership roles at places like Microsoft without it.

To my younger self, and to you, I say: Acting on those blind spots is going to be hard. Painful even. Working on them will be harder. You'll want to turn away and pretend they're not real. But if you're committed to your personal development, embracing your blind spots and committing to overcoming them is where the payoff lies.

Here are the 4 steps to take:

  1. Rally a group of friends, colleagues, employees, and others you can trust to provide honest input about your leadership habits, communication style, and other behaviors in and out of the office.

  2. With a skilled coach or advisor, start to watch, record, and alter any behaviors that could slow or stop your career growth.

  3. Now formulate and test new behaviors, tracking how well they stack up to comparable old habits and patterns.

  4. Get used to viewing yourself from perspectives other than your own; practice self-awareness through the eyes of your team and stakeholders until it becomes a strong habit.

Sharpening your awareness can dramatically increase your leadership effectiveness. But recognition and commitment are only the beginning. Find a trusted confidant, mentor, or executive coach who has the skill to help you frame up the feedback and help you design experiments and practices to get stronger. Then practice, get additional feedback, and practice some more.

Moving your leadership to the next level

I eventually woke up to my bad behavior. In some ways, I'm still waking up. It's hard work.

You're committed to becoming a better leader or you wouldn't have read this far. The only question now is whether you're willing to open your eyes to the painful truths lurking in your blind spots. That's what the best leaders do, over and over again.


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