At Work

Self-awareness leads to better leadership

I ended my previous article on “leadership” with a quote from the Chinese sage Laozi. I would like to start this article on leadership with a quote from the Chinese sage Laozi.

Knowing others is intelligence;

Knowing yourself is true wisdom;

Mastering others is strength;

Mastering yourself is true power”

Self awareness is fundamental to achieving that “true wisdom” and “true power” which are the hallmarks of effective leadership.

Knowing your capabilities and preferences will help you leverage strengths to compensate for weaknesses and seek opportunities to improve, reduce or bypass those tasks which come hard in one of the three broad leadership “dimensions”.

These “dimensions” are: the “autocratic”, “participative” and “laissez-faire” (free rein). Each suits a different business and/or wider environmental challenge, with the most successful and long-term default dimension being the “participative”.

The “autocratic” style, I suggested, was most effective in crisis; and the “laissez-faire” better for smaller organisations of mature, experienced experts fully signed up to collective goals.

Being able to communicate persuasively — through words and actions — a rationale for your leadership style and your vision for the long-term, collectively beneficial success of the organisation is critical.

A management tool called the “Johari window” is a useful way of exploring strengths and weaknesses. A square is divided into quadrants called “open”,” hidden”, “blind” and “unknown”.

The “open” top left hand quadrant contains characteristics and qualities like life-style, attitudes, behaviour, motivation that you are aware of and share openly with others.

The “hidden” bottom left quadrant has things like priorities, values and your decision-making style known mainly to you.

The “blind” top right quadrant contains attributes you are not aware of but which others see.

Finally, the bottom right hand “unknown” square is blank: “full” of potential, of maybes, good and bad, waiting to be actualised but currently unconscious.


Your task is to move as much information as possible and relevant to leadership from the “hidden” and “blind” squares to the “open” window; and to explore that “unknown” quadrant and identify, nurture and then expose in your “open” square positive attributes.

Negatives need to be owned, emotionally managed and moved from “unknown” to “hidden”. Whether you are essentially autocratic and exclusive or participative and inclusive, will provide ample insight and could bring about improvements.

The ideal is getting a 360° feedback from superiors, colleagues, subordinates and external customers.

In effect, everyone needs to be your follower because everyone needs to trust you and your participative vision of progress.

It is helpful for what to put in your “known” and “hidden” quadrants by rating (1=insignificant; 5=significant) strengths and weaknesses on a checklist of 50 to 100 qualities or attributes.

These may include calm under pressure; control and share feelings and recognise those of others; willing to take risks; delegate effectively; prefer negotiated decisions; unify a group; inspire; recognise others’ potential and empower them; persuasive communicator; prefer details or the big picture; friendly; prefer to lead; good listener; unbiased towards others; approachable; creative etc.

Each of these attributes has its reverse. Try to change towards outward behaviours which promote long-term approval and positive engagement.

Bear in mind that leadership dimensions are rarely 100% autocratic or participative.

The latter will occasionally demand an authoritative steer when there is an immediate crisis and time pressures will not permit debate and consensus.

Both dimensions will always be energised by leaders who are optimistic, fair, honest, open, and approachable and which give respect and praise without favour.

Now for another simple exercise to help structure your leadership strengths and weaknesses.

In your profile will be embedded intellectual, emotional, gender, experiential and cultural influences manifesting in a general personality preference for a particular leadership dimension.

This may make certain changes difficult - but rarely impossible.

Poor communication skills can be improved with the right training. So can emotional intelligence, coaching and many other skills.

A strength can leverage a weakness. So use your strengths and work on improving weaknesses, with professional coaching if necessary.

Finally, the wise leader knows some social cultural restraints may be insurmountable.

Equally, the culture of some organisations may simply be too inflexible to allow change. In these cases your new wisdom and power will either allow you to bend to the prevailing culture or suggest the way to new ground in which to flourish.

Extracted from 'Let's Communic8' by Alex Cummins

Alex Cummins is a trainer with the Professional Development Unit of the British Council in Kuala Lumpur.