Having the courage to look at yourself and take responsibility for changeA business owner recently told me about a proverbial wakeup call he had received: a key employee had resigned, citing difficulties with the owner as one of the reasons. As the exit interviews unfolded over a period of days, the owner learned that the employee had accepted an attractive job offer with a competitor. Ouch.
The good news is that the business owner is using this opportunity to take stock of his management and leadership style. He wants to see what he can learn from the situation.
This person is a hard-driving individual with high expectations who has undervalued the importance of tending his relationships with employees. Assuring customer satisfaction, managing cash flow, and coping with the challenges of doing business during a profound recession have occupied the bulk of his time and attention. His worries about his business made him irritable and anxious, which often spilled over into his interactions with employees. And now he has lost one of them.
This is just one example of the dramatic impact that leaders have on the people in their organizations. The individual in our story is an honest, fair, hard-working, self-made man who saw himself as “just one of the guys.” This belief caused him to underestimate the impact his moods and behaviors had on his employees.
Experience has taught me that occupying a leadership position is like being under a magnifying glass. All of our personal qualities (including our idiosyncrasies) are on display. We are being continuously observed, evaluated and judged. (Parents will recognize this as similar to what happens with children as they exquisitely note any discrepancies or inconsistencies you may exhibit.)
It is important for leaders to understand this dynamic. The key is self-awareness. Leaders today cannot afford to be unaware or defensive. We must make a dedicated effort to be self-aware. We need an accurate and up-to-date understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, our biases, assumptions, and beliefs, our values and behaviors. Self-awareness can be gained from many sources: reading, executive coaching, personality testing, classes and workshops, and psychotherapy, as well as trusted and insightful friends. Our interpersonal relationships in various forms can be rich sources of information, offering real-time, real- world feedback, just as this example illustrates.
Tremendous advances in the field of psychology have given contemporary leaders a wide array of useful tools and resources. Just as leaders must educate themselves in management, marketing, sales, finance, HR, and technology, it makes business sense to become educated about human psychology, because the human factor is the common denominator in every organization. Very little can move forward in any arena of human endeavor without an understanding of people. And understanding of others always starts with self.
With self-understanding comes insight that allows for a wider range of responses and a deeper reservoir of interpersonal skills upon which to draw. In contrast, if we are lacking in self-awareness, we are more likely to act out of habit, which limits our range of behaviors. From self-understanding we can move to effective self-management. Inherent therein is self-discipline, the ability to choose our words and actions consciously. In short, it is critical for leaders to have emotional intelligence—social and people skills—in addition to technical, industry, and general management expertise.