You Think You’re This, But You’re Probably That

You Think You’re This, But You’re Probably That

The lecture hall at a prestigious university was nearly full, and every eye was trained in my direction. When I invited questions after my presentation on leadership, a young man in the back row called out, “What’s the one thing I need to know so I can get your job one day?” Sitting with his arms folded, his baseball cap on backward, he grinned at me.

There is one important quality—the foundation on which all other leadership development becomes possible—the “secret ingredient” that answered the student’s question: self-awareness.

Most people can’t really see themselves, and so they assume they possess qualities that may not really be there. Perhaps they think they’re great communicators, when in fact they often leave people scratching their heads. Or they unknowingly come across as arrogant or aloof. In other words, they think they’re this, but they’re probably that.

Many people aspire to leadership, but not everyone will (or should) become a leader. Some lack the critical skills. Others are technically competent, but ignore the softer side of inspiring and motivating others.

Too often, leaders fail to address their blind spots—those areas in need of development to make them better leaders. And the higher up they go, the bigger those blind spots can become, because most followers will only tell the leader what they think he or she wants to hear. It’s like climbing a pyramid: the track gets narrower as you reach the top. At the pinnacle, there is no one to your left or right—you’re all alone.

If you aspire to leadership, you must be open to and actively seek out feedback and input from others. Otherwise, you’re going to become lost in a mirage of self-perception. The world around you will quickly become an optical illusion in which truth is distorted. If that’s the case, your myopic view should carry the warning: “Objects are closer than they appear.” What you think is only a distant possibility or a small impediment that can’t possibly impact you is actually gaining on you! Only by relying on the vision of others—especially their perception of you—can you gain a clear picture.

It’s a real danger when your distorted view substitutes for reality—especially because no one wants to give you the “bad news.” To illustrate this concept for the students, I shared one of my favorite business parables:

A new CEO was holding his first “town hall” meeting with employees, taking to the podium with a command-and-control style to show everybody that things were going to change. As the CEO spoke, he noticed a man in the corner who wasn’t paying attention. He wasn’t dressed like the rest of them. He wore jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap on backward. (I glanced at the student in the back row when I said that!)

Wanting to make an example of this man for his laxity, the CEO called him out and asked him how much he made a week. The guy shrugged and said about $400. The CEO reached in his pocket, pulled out about $1,000 in cash, and told the man he was fired. When the man took the money and left, the CEO noticed his sly grin. Other people were smiling, too, but no one said anything. After the meeting, the CEO called one of his senior vice presidents over. “I sure made an example of that guy.”

“Yeah, he was surprised,” the SVP replied. “By the way, that was Johnny, the pizza delivery guy who brought us lunch. He certainly appreciated the tip you gave him.”

Moral of the story: Leaders who lack self-awareness cannot see themselves accurately, let alone those around them.

As I explained to the students, those who aspire to become leaders have to start by looking within. Only with self-awareness will you know your strengths and admit to your weaknesses. Only by first knowing yourself can you let others see who you really are. When they see the real you, they can choose to follow you.

It’s a rare leader who truly motivates people and inspires them to the point that they become eager followers—getting up at 4:30 in the morning without an alarm clock just because they can’t wait for another day. This is the type of leader who can help others see what is possible for themselves and their organizations—and then turn that belief into reality.

After my lecture, several students stopped me with questions. The last was the student with the baseball cap, now in his hands instead of backward on his head. “Thanks for answering my question,” he said politely. “The way I asked it, though, I guess I was showing off.”

Here was a mouse, pretending to be a lion. But when the mouse goes out in the jungle, he’s going to see just how inadequate his self-perception is.

When we shook hands, I gave that student some parting advice: “To see tomorrow, you must perceive the reality of today. Similarly, to lead others you must, first, accurately see yourself. Then who knows—you just might become a leader after all.”

In this issue of Briefings we build on the above-mentioned theme of self-awareness. Adrian Wooldridge, the management editor of The Economist and a regular Briefings contributor, discusses self-knowledge and leadership going back to ancient times.

Larry Fisher, also a frequent contributor to Briefings, writes about the way leadership styles differ around the world. Glenn Rifkin, our contributing editor, takes a look at how Teresa Amabile, a professor at the Harvard Business School, thinks about leadership, creativity and self-knowledge.

Self-knowledge is an important concept for anyone aspiring to lead or do something creative. We hope this issue of Briefings adds to your own storehouse of insights.

Authors

  • Gary Burnison

    Chief Executive Officer

    Bio >