Filling in Your Blind Spots

The self-aware leader

While doing research for her book “The Progress Principle,” Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile enlisted 238 professionals from seven companies in three industries to provide daily diaries of their work experiences. Each day for the duration of individual projects—between three and nine months—Amabile and her co-author, Steven Kramer, sent an e-mail containing a daily diary form for each participant to report on the activities and feelings from that day’s work—all of which required a high level of creative thinking—and rate their emotions and motivations.

One leader of an innovation team at a chemicals firm would regularly report his “excellent interactions” with his team members and how well the project was proceeding. “I stopped in and visited Jill as she was finalizing the results of the experiment and putting it together in a presentation to the technical directors tomorrow,” he wrote. “We had a great conversation. I gave her some helpful suggestions; she was very grateful and excited about them.”

However, the response from Jill was entirely different. She said this team leader came in and wasted 45 minutes of precious prep time, making picky suggestions that were not at all helpful. His micromanaging was a problem for the entire team, she wrote. Jill’s comments echoed others in the group. And a project that had begun with great excitement and anticipation was eventually aborted as the team became discouraged, because they all felt it was going nowhere with this leader. The leader’s lack of self-awareness illustrated the impact such a flaw can have on an organization.

“I believe that the fully self-aware leader is rare,” said Amabile, whose research is focused on creativity and motivation in the workplace. “It isn’t part of most leadership development programs and, beyond that, it is very hard to do. It relies on leaders not only being open to feedback from others—and I mean a lot of others who interact with them—but it also means knowing how to use the feedback and actively and regularly seek it. Those are all very difficult things to do.”

Though the words “know thyself” have resonated across the millennia, from ancient Greece and philosophers such as Socrates, it is a concept not traditionally embraced in the business world. Most business leaders are likely to scoff at the notion of a deep dive into self-examination, dismissing it as a “soft skill” that is low on the list of leadership priorities. Successful high-level leaders, awash in self-confidence and acclaim, generally assume that, whatever their psychological makeup, the formula that got them to this level of achievement needn’t be tweaked. One can hardly imagine a Steve Jobs or a Larry Ellison paying much heed to a 360 review.

In fact, the empirical leader of business folklore has increasingly become a relic of a past age, especially in the stress-filled world of global commerce. When psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Goleman published his groundbreaking book “Emotional Intelligence” in 1995, he offered a survey of the qualities found in most successful people, qualities that transcended a high I.Q.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2004, Goleman stated that the most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: “They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that I.Q. and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but mainly as ‘threshold capabilities’; that is, they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. But my research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”

At the top of his list of characteristics at the core of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. According to Goleman, self-awareness means “having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs and drives. People with strong self-awareness are neither overtly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest—with themselves and with others.” The keystone of self-awareness is “recognizing a feeling as it happens.” If we don’t understand our feelings from moment to moment, he suggested, we are unlikely to achieve the level of insight and self-understanding required for success.

In fact, the importance of self-awareness for prospective leaders is a widely held paradigm. The late leadership guru Warren Bennis wrote often about “authenticity” as a crucial tenet of successful leadership. “The process of becoming a leader is, if not identical, certainly similar to the process of becoming a fully integrated human being,” Bennis wrote. “It’s got to do with authenticity, it’s got to do with candor; it’s got to do with the fact that one cannot truly lead unless one is an expert in self-management. The essence of leaders is placed firmly in issues of character, on who we are, on self-awareness.”

Adds Anthony K. Tjan, writing in a 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “In my experience, there is one quality that trumps all, evident in virtually every great entrepreneur, manager and leader. That quality is self-awareness.” According to Tjan, CEO and founder of Cue Ball, a venture capital firm, and co-author of the 2012 best seller “Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck,” “The best thing leaders can do to improve their effectiveness is become more aware of what motivates them and their decision making. Without self-awareness, you cannot understand your strengths and weakness, your ‘super powers’ versus your ‘kryptonite.’ It is self-awareness that allows the best business-builders to walk the tightrope of leadership: projecting conviction while simultaneously remaining humble enough to be open to new ideas and opposing opinions.”

Does self-awareness have a payback?

Yet given the success of so many leaders, such as Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Eisner, Jack Welch and others whose personalities tended toward the tyrannical, the question arises as to whether self-awareness is simply a potent but peripheral quality in a leader or whether it has an actual impact on the bottom line. In a 2013 study, David Zes and Dana Landis, research analysts at Korn Ferry, offered up a breakthrough finding. Searching through nearly 7,000 self-assessments from professionals at 486 publicly traded companies, Zes and Landis identified what they called “blind spots” in the leadership characteristics of the respondents. These were revealed by a disparity between answers in two different parts of the test. Charting the frequency of such blind spots against the rate of return of the companies’ stock, the analysts came up with an eye-opening conclusion:

-Poor-performing companies’ employees had 20 percent more blind spots than those working at financially strong companies.

-Poor-performing companies’ employees were 79 percent more likely to have low overall self-awareness than those at firms with robust returns on revenue.

According to their report, Zes and Landis tracked the stock performance of companies over 30 months—from July 2010 through January 2013—and during that period “the companies with the greater percentage of self-aware employees consistently outperformed those with a lower percentage.”

The idea that self-awareness has significant upside for an organization’s bottom line puts a new light on an old assumption. “Addressing blind spots and increasing self-awareness have long been seen as positives for individuals,” the authors wrote. “Now we have statistical findings that suggest benefits also exist at the macro level of an organization. Leaders with higher self-awareness not only have greater job satisfaction and commitment to their employer personally, but that effect also appears to trickle down to a manager’s direct reports. In the constant drive for competitive advantage, it turns out that helping employees to better understand themselves and fostering a culture of healthy feedback could also help to improve an organization’s overall performance.”

But if the payoff is significant, finding leaders with that degree of self-awareness remains a daunting task. Stu Crandell, a Korn Ferry partner in Minnesota, has spent enough time seeking high-level leaders for top positions to understand the challenge.

“As leaders move up, particularly to the C-suite, they can live in their own bubble,” Crandell said. “They are often surrounded by people who are reluctant to give them feedback. You can lose touch with how others perceive you and start to believe the stories about yourself.”

For example, a recent CEO search for a company that manufactured ingredients for molecules used in various consumer products had zeroed in on the firm’s chief financial officer as the candidate most qualified to take over the top spot, Crandell recalled. This executive had the support of the outgoing CEO as well as the board of directors. But an assessment by Korn Ferry revealed a blind spot, a true lack of self-awareness and an inability to respond to feedback. As they connected the dots, “they realized it was a big mistake to move that person up,” Crandell said.

Indeed, studies tend to illuminate the troubling phenomenon that the more senior an executive becomes in an organization, the less self-aware that person tends to be.

According to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean and professor at the Yale School of Management and author of “The Hero’s Farewell,” the higher a person moves up the corporate ladder, the more likely he or she is to “lose direct contact with others around them. Information is filtered so that even if that person wanted a reality check, they don’t have access to get that reality check. When she loses the common touch, the heroic leader is doomed.”

Who Is the Person?

When Vineet Nayar became CEO of HCL Technologies, an information technology giant based in Noida, India, he realized that one of the structural flaws in traditional management systems was that “the leader holds too much power. That prevents the organization from becoming democratized and the energy of the employees from being released.”

As the $5-billion company’s CEO from 2007 to 2013, Nayar exhibited an unusual level of self-awareness that caused business pundits to take notice. When he spoke to Briefings magazine in 2010, he pointed out that many CEO’s claim that their employees are the company’s most important asset but few actually behave as if they truly believe it. In order to empower employees, “you must stop thinking of yourself as the only source of change,” Nayar said.

Nayar took the radical step of upending the traditional corporate pyramid and putting at the top the employees who create the company’s real value. Managers became responsible to the personnel at the front lines doing the real work and interacting with  the customers.

Nayar went so far as to post his own 360 review online for all employees to read. He was comfortable enough to see the benefits of sharing the full person, rather than just the visible executive, with his people.

“Who is the person?” Nayar asked. “Is the person someone who walks into the company? In my own case, most of my life, the person who walked into the company was actually not me, at least not all of me. It was a very small percentage of me. I’m a father. I’m a sports enthusiast. I’m a social worker. I’m a son. I like movies. I like to read some crazy books. And also I understand technology. And HCL actually took only one part of me, which is the part that understands technology. They left the other seven elements out. So the more I thought about that, the better I understood that the more of those seven complements that we can bring inside the organization, the more beautiful the organization becomes.”

For Anthony Mayo, director of the leadership initiative at the Harvard Business School’s executive education program, Nayar represented an unusually self-aware leader. “Nayar said, ‘I’m going to put my 360 out there, warts and all, and I’m going to allow employees to give me feedback,’” Mayo said. “A lot of people wouldn’t do that. A lot of people won’t even ask. In my career, I’ve seen where leaders have gotten feedback about their self-awareness and thrown it in the trash. They say, ‘I’m not even going to read this, because if I do, it will challenge my view of myself and that will allow me to stumble. And I don’t want that.’”

Under Nayar, HCL grew its revenues and market capitalization six-fold. Nayar wrote a book called “Employees First, Customers Second” and earned plaudits from business publications for his innovative thinking.

“Unless you become uncomfortable with who you are, you will not stop being an ant,” Nayar said about many insular companies and incurious leaders. “You can be a fast ant, you can be a rich ant, but you’re still an ant and you’ll never be a butterfly.”

Radical though he might be, Nayar is hardly the only successful self-aware leader. Sonnenfeld, who runs high-level Yale CEO Summits each year with an impressive list of corporate leaders, has been intrigued by the likes of Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox, Jeffrey Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner Inc., and Mickey Drexler, CEO of J. Crew, when it comes to their intuitive curiosity and openness to outside feedback.

“Drexler will come to my class and start taking notes, ask questions and openly talk about the failures in his own life,” Sonnenfeld said. Having studied leaders’ behavior for more than 30 years, Sonnenfeld said he has noticed that successful leaders tend to become more self-reflective later in life.

“It’s a life-stage issue rather than a cohort issue,” Sonnenfeld said. “When people are in their 20s and 30s and even 40s, they tend to be transaction-driven and are so busy chasing the urgent crisis of the day, trying to identify the new new thing, that they don’t really reflect much back on themselves … until the ladder falls or the scheme falls apart. Then they start to rethink the dreams and aspirations they had as children. They start to think about what their dreams need to be that are truly their own and not borrowed dreams from a parent or some media imagery they assimilated earlier in life.”

Writing in Psychology Today, Douglas LaBier, a psychologist and director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C., echoed the importance of self-awareness in business.

“Self-reflection and its reward of self-awareness cannot be thought of as passive exercises, new-era meditation or soft science,” he wrote. “They’re absolutely essential. There is a reason why in rehabilitation programs the starting point is being aware enough to admit you have a problem. So too is the case in business leadership and personal development.”

Can self-awareness be taught?

Why, one might ask, has leadership ignored the benefits of self-awareness? Is it simply that teaching self-awareness to prospective and seasoned executives is too hard? According to Amabile, the answer is simple. “It’s hard because it’s not part of leadership development,” she said. “It’s not part of leadership training in most M.B.A. programs. I’ve been at Harvard Business School for 20 years and until recently, we have not focused on it in any formal way.”

Amabile pointed out that her colleague Anthony Mayo has begun to focus on self-awareness in the school’s FIELD program, a leadership development course for all first-year M.B.A. students based, in part, on the U.S. military’s view of leadership. Harvard has also added a self-awareness component to its executive education program in recent years, but that tends to be rare in academic settings. “And it’s not highlighted in leadership training programs within companies either,” she said.

At Harvard, Mayo described a second-year M.B.A. course called Authentic Leadership Development that offers a focus on self-awareness training. Students are put into small teams and their interactions are recorded on video. They are asked to take on a leadership role, participate in a negotiation or simulate giving feedback to a peer or direct report. “They have to watch the video, and that tends to be one of the most powerful ways of building self-awareness,” Mayo said. “People often think they are more direct than they are, their eyes wander, and they are uncomfortable in conflict situations. In this way, they can really see how they are perceived.”

In places where self-awareness is taught, the results can be mixed. “It’s not always easy to teach it,” said Sonnenfeld, who pointed out that Yale has a required course for its M.B.A. students. “Obviously, the ones who need it the most embrace it the least.”

Self-aware or not, dynamic leaders tend to be unique. A future Howard Schultz or Sergey Brin cannot be duplicated or cut from a mold. Their individual story has as much influence on their ability to be self-reflective as any coaching might instill. In the world of business, the most admired leaders tend to be those who become heroes because they made a lot of money. “There isn’t necessarily anything about them as leaders of other people that we would want aspiring leaders to emulate,” Amabile said. “People can become very wealthy in business and have a lot of financial success for themselves and their companies without being particularly good leaders of other people.”

Indeed, the most effective leaders are not only self-reflective but deeply in tune with how they affect the people around them. Can a leader generate a sense of trust, affiliation and camaraderie in a team? Can a leader provide employees with sufficient encouragement when the work is especially difficult? “I believe that those behaviors depend strongly on a leader’s self-awareness,” Amabile said.

Despite the obstacles, Amabile is convinced that self-awareness can be taught, especially when a young executive is becoming a leader. She offered three fundamental needs for increasing self-awareness:

The first is honest, consistent and frequent feedback on a leader’s strengths and weaknesses and the impact they are having on other people. A 360 review can help, but only if leaders have someone who can coach them to understand the results of the review. They must also be willing to accept the results, even if they differ dramatically from what these prospective leaders believe about themselves.

The second is ongoing coaching, which shows the individual the areas they need to improve and provides support from a trusted colleague or mentor.

The third is reflection. Individuals on this journey must spend at least a little time every day—ideally toward the end of the day—reflecting on their work, their influence on other employees, their intentions and their emotions underlying their behavior. One way to accomplish this is to keep a daily journal to record these reflections in order to be able to look back over time to see how they’ve developed.

Finally, there is the issue of respect and acceptance. According to Daniel Goleman, despite the value of having self-aware employees in the workplace, his research indicated that senior executives “don’t often give self-awareness the credit it deserves when they look for potential leaders. Many executives mistake candor about feelings for ‘wimpiness’ and fail to give due respect to employees who openly acknowledge their shortcomings. Such people are too readily dismissed as ‘not tough enough’ to lead others.”

This blood-and-guts attitude worked well for Gen. Patton decades ago but has begun to lose its luster in many organizations where candor is actually prized. In a global marketplace where tough choices must be made quickly and efficiently, mistakes can be avoided and better decisions can be reached when leaders know themselves and their organizations in a deeply incisive way.

Even the superstars should be forewarned. “Sometimes these heroes may not have a lot of self-awareness,” said Crandell. “If you have the right vision, maybe you don’t need a whole lot of self-awareness. But once the external market changes, you have to change your vision or you’ll lead everyone into a ditch.” Without self-awareness, the “vision thing” can become cloudy very quickly.

Authors

  • Glenn Rifkin

    Managing Editor, Korn Ferry Briefings