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Know Thyself

May 18, 2023

Recently a friend whom I had not seen in some time answered my greeting with a comical one liner. I asked how he was doing as I hadn’t seen him in a while. He answered heartily, “Good. And it’s just nice to be seen, not viewed.” We both laughed. But there was a hint of truth and self-awareness in his answer. I’ve come to believe that self-awareness in a leader is an essential ingredient in being credible, enlisting followers especially in hard times, and improving one’s leadership capacity.

What is self-awareness? It’s in part feeling what others feel, understanding your strengths and limitations, and behaving as if you do. It’s seeing yourself clearly. The HBR says true self-awareness is a rare quality. Leadership expert John Maxwell suggests a leader’s greatest challenge is leading oneself. Want a better team? A better organization? Then learn to lead yourself better, he advises. Maxwell’s book, “The Self-Aware Leader” is a primer on the topic. I laugh when I think of advice given to me by my mentor many years ago. He advised me to do two things that in retrospect have turned out to be pretty wise. First, he suggested I read. Articles, books, journals, etc.— places where I could get ideas other than my own. His second piece of advice was more pointed. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “hang out with others smarter than you.” He noted that shouldn’t be a problem for me! Above all, he was advising me to become a learner. Below are three pieces to consider in your self-awareness puzzle garnered from Maxwell, a host of others, and experience learned the hard way.


Years ago, I got to be on a panel with Art Linkletter. It was a thrill to meet this legendary entertainer when he arrived at the venue the night before the event. Well into his nineties then, he greeted us enthusiastically as he checked into the hotel while we waited. As the clerk was finishing, Linkletter turned to three of us and said, “Do you all know the secret to life?” He kept us hanging until he concluded his check in. Then he turned back to us smiling broadly and answered his own question. “Find out what you are good at and run it into the ground." It described perfectly why I’m a believer in Clifton Strengths Finder as an assessment tool to help people figure out what they are good at doing. We ALL have gifts to offer others and it helps to know and grow them. I have another friend who says, “what’s best for child is usually in the child.” I think it’s true for adults too. Get feedback from others on what your talents are, then develop and apply them in your life. I think Art had it right.


There is an oft told tale of two hunters out in the woods who separate for a short time. When one returns, he finds his friend on the ground out cold and not appearing to breathe. In a panic he called 911. Yelling at the operator, he says his friend is dead. The operator very calmly asks him to take a deep breath and listen. “First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” Then, comes silence and a shot. The man returns to the line and says, “Okay, now what?” Just as we occasionally confuse activity for accomplishment, we can hear what someone says and not listen. Listening is really hearing what others say even when it’s in conflict with what you want them to do. I remember becoming an Army officer in the late 60’s and early 70’s when college students made well known their views on the Vietnam War. Politicians finally listened to that message and adjusted at a terrible, slow, and unnecessary cost.


There’s an adage that when you curl three fingers to point one finger at someone, you are really pointing three fingers at yourself. When an organization continues to lose good people, self-aware leaders look at themselves. Max De Pree, another leadership guru, says “The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among followers.”  Self-aware people look at themselves, admit mistakes when they make them, learn from the experience, and move forward. Self-awareness is your friend even when it hurts—a lot. Nobody expects or frankly wants a leader who is perfect (Hint: there aren’t any). But they want one who learns, asks of others nothing they don’t ask of themselves first, and knows when they fall short. Why? Because we are humans first. And followers follow human leaders.

Self-awareness is an attitude to be embraced, a skill to be practiced, and a gift to yourself and others. It’s not blaming yourself but rather including yourself in assessing paths forward. It’s really listening to the audience and sometimes changing your path. It’s having friends who love you enough to tell you the ugly truth and having the courage to let them.