What characteristics do we tend to associate with successful people and leaders in business? Someone tough, powerful, direct, results driven, even ambitious. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the image of the hard driving, no prisoners, results at all costs leader. After all, the conventional wisdom in businesses and organisations has been that nice guys finish last. But is that really the case?
A study was conducted by Cornell University, which involved senior executives at companies generating up to 5 billion dollars in revenue across a variety of industries, with the purpose of answering one question. What predicts executive success?
The traditional model of toughness, being focused and single minded, and approaching business as an intellectual endeavor, without due regard for the personal, does not translate to better strategic and financial performance. The strongest predictor of overall success, as measured by strategic and financial performance outcomes, is a high level of self awareness.
There are three reasons why this was found to be the case. Firstly, those with a high level of self awareness tend to have a growth mindset. They are teachable throughout the whole of their career. And this doesn’t change as they ascend into leadership roles. They’re constantly seeking to improve and really importantly, they seek help in doing so.
Secondly, a high degree of self awareness usually means having good interpersonal skills, the ability to cultivate and maintain relationships and communicate well with others. As a business culture, and as individuals, we are all too inclined to buy into the idea that effective leaders are hard driving people and it’s only expected that they’ll cause some breakage along the way. Who amongst us hasn’t at one time or another, excused someone’s bad behaviour on the grounds that it was unpleasant but in spite of the rudeness and acting out, they get the job done and deliver results. The truth is, that probably isn’t happening.
On the other hand, an individual who is self aware and good with people and with a team will be better at working with clients and business departments, better at grasping and executing strategy and better at delivering bottom line results. The lower ego, trust inspiring individuals still hold the bar incredibly high and demand strong performance, but with a style that incorporates strong relational skills and respect. These individuals also create a safe environment in which team members can have productive conflict, resulting typically in more creative ideas.
Better businesses, certainly financial planning ones are not machines. They are living organisms made up of people. Therefore, I think it does make sense that those report interpersonal skills leads to underperformance in most executive functions. And third, those with a high level of self Awareness are usually acutely aware of their own weaknesses, and are often able to hire individuals who perform well in categories in which the leader lacks acumen. But more difficult than that, they are also willing to hire individuals who have the potential to perform better in categories in which the leader is already strong. These leaders are also more able to simply entertain the idea that someone on their team might have a better idea than this. And they’re willing to support and encourage the development of their ideas, and of others without insecurity. So those are some of the reasons, but what can we do about it? How do we cultivate and grow in our own self awareness creating the individuals and leaders that we need in our profession? And why isn’t everyone doing this?
Well, I can think of a couple of reasons. First, because most of us think we’re already pretty self aware, but we’re talking about self awareness here on a relative scale. And there is always room for improvement. We’re all on autopilot most of the time, we need to be to survive. But we also have the capacity to identify when we need to when we’re on autopilot, and if it serves us, and if it doesn’t, we also have the opportunity to make changes to our behavior, and even our beliefs and to because it’s hard, emotionally, but it’s also a route to having more compassion for yourself and for others. It’s commonly accepted that when you physically work out and train, you often have to go through some sort of discomfort. you sweat you ache, your muscles might be sore for a few days. But if you’re consistent in your practice, you get fitter, you get stronger. But yet, when we’re looking to strengthen ourselves emotionally or psychologically, we tend to avoid things that might cause us discomfort, or pain. Even if it’s only temporary, like seeking genuine feedback when you know it’s going to be hard to hear, or taking responsibility for your response, having made a situation worse, or reliving a past memory that you had buried away, but never quite moved on from.
The more you know about yourself and other people, the better off you’ll be. It might not be pleasant, but you will be better off in the long run. It’s no longer just a nice to have or even something that takes you from good to great. Becoming critical in this ever increasingly complex world, where information and change is coming at us so rapidly, that if you’re not connected to why you do what you do, your motivations, your attention is going to be hijacked by whatever is in your field of vision at any moment, and you’re going to be much more reactive than be able to respond from a thoughtful place.
Harvard psychologists have described us as the most over informed under reflective people in the history of civilization. There is just so much competing for your attention in these modern times. But it’s easy to get into the habit of focusing most of your attention externally, and as a result getting disconnected from your own internal world. But it’s this reflection that is the key to our success. So how can we increase our self awareness and be more effective as contributors and leaders at work?
We can practice meditation or other mindful habits. journaling can also work well for some, the process of writing down or for self reflections can be meditative. As Connie highlighted highlighted earlier. Mindfulness is simply the practice of being present, and observing what’s going on in your mind, your body and your environment, with focus, clarity, and importantly, acceptance of what is you could look into psychometric or personality testing, but ideally one that you have to read and commit more to, to really understand how it works and what the output is telling you. These are not flawless by any means, but they can help shine a light on your strengths your weaknesses and importantly, your blind spots and give you areas and how to improve.
And thirdly, ask for feedback from someone you trust. This could be close friends, family, a colleague at work, but this does come with a health warning. You need to make it safe for them and by that, I mean don’t lash out or be hurt by what they say. It’s a real privilege to have someone in your life willing to do this for you. You could also work with a coach or a therapist. I think it’s a real shame that there’s a stigma still seeing a therapist, like there must be something wrong with you if you’re seeking professional help. Well, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done and I cannot recommend it enough. It’s important to say that whilst self awareness has many benefits, it is by itself not really the point. Instead, it’s just a way of helping us better navigate this ever changing world, giving us a better chance of succeeding at work and in life. Dame Minouche Shafik said, “Past jobs were about muscles. Now, they’re about brains, but in the future, they’ll be about the heart.”