Library Leaders Need to Get a Clue about Self-Awareness | Leading from the Library

We learn that good leaders have the quality of self-awareness. What exactly does that mean and how do you know if that describes you? Not sure? Here are some things library leaders can do to boost their self-awareness.
Steven BellWe learn that good leaders have the quality of self-awareness. What exactly does that mean and how do you know if that describes you? Not sure? Here are some things library leaders can do to boost their self-awareness. No leader wants to be clueless about who they are and the effect they have on those with whom they work. The conundrum is when we lack self-awareness we fail to recognize our own limited clarity about who we are and the quality of our relationships. While it can be hard to assess our personal self-awareness, we excel in detecting someone else’s lack of it. Take job candidates, for example. It’s likely you’ve encountered one who brings a black hole of self-awareness to their interview. Did they really just say that? We suddenly realize just how obvious self-unawareness is. It may cause us to cringe a bit and question whether we are equally afflicted in this way. Unfortunately, there are no simple tests for self-awareness, but as with many leadership matters, we can learn to become a more self-aware leader.

You don’t know what you don’t know

Multiple articles and blog posts about leaders lacking self-awareness share a common observation: The leaders who most lack self-awareness are the same ones who least realize it. Profiles of these clueless leaders paint the picture of someone who thinks their subordinates respect, admire, or have great confidence in them. When those subordinates talk candidly about their leader, a much different picture emerges. They describe someone oblivious to staff needs, outright demeaning of their work, failing to acknowledge their contributions to organizational accomplishments, and a host of other negative qualities. How is it possible a leader could miss this, instead building a self-image that is out of touch with reality? It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing yourself quite differently than what the rest of the world sees. I recall a story from a presentation by Karol Wasylyshyn, an executive coach, about a CEO client who refused to believe that his workers didn’t absolutely love him—even when she presented him with incontrovertible evidence from 360 reviews by staff members.

You May Lack Self-Awareness If…

There are no tests for self-awareness, but the literature does provide some suggestions that test whether you might be a leader who needs to build more self-awareness. One of the common ones is micromanaging staff (the subject of last month’s column) while thinking they perceive you as a hands-off manager. Other behaviors that make the list of qualities that signal a lack of self-awareness include:
  • Thinking colleagues fail to get your point and underappreciate your insight
  • Reacting strongly when perspectives and recommendations are challenged
  • Blaming others for failures or problems and refusing to accept responsibility
  • Feeling annoyed when others expect you to understand how they feel
  • Being dismissive of the value of being well-liked or perceived as a good colleague
  • Getting defensive when staff ask for direction or make suggestions
  • Agreeing to do things and then doing the exact opposite
These traits may call to mind experiences with toxic leaders. To my way of thinking, leaders who lack self-awareness are not quite toxic because it’s something other than meanness, hate, or evil that’s driving their behavior. They’re failing to see themselves clearly, as well as missing how their actions affect or are perceived by others. Toxic leaders rarely change. There are two courses of action to deal with a toxic leader: Live with it or quit. But with some help, clueless leaders can gain self-awareness. Change is possible.

Types of Self-Awareness

Acknowledging one’s lack of self-awareness is a difficult first step, but start by asking whether any of those examples in the section above apply to your leadership behavior. According to Tasha Eurich, self-awareness researcher and author of “What Self-Awareness Really Is and How to Cultivate It,” begin by recognizing the two types of self-awareness, internal and external. Internal self-awareness relates to how clearly we know our own values, feelings, and behaviors. External self-awareness means we understand how other people view us and sense how our behavior affects others. While internal self-awareness can lead to higher job satisfaction, external self-awareness is the more important of the two. Externally self-aware leaders show empathy and openness to others’ perspectives, and that leads to more satisfied employees who seek and achieve a better relationship with their leader. What’s scary is that Eurich’s research found that only 10 percent to 15 percent of the 5,000 leaders studied had both types of self-awareness.

Building Self-Awareness

Easy solutions for developing internal and external self-awareness are unlikely. A leader’s first step is to look in the mirror, acknowledge faults, and commit to achieving self-awareness. Knowing the qualities of leaders who lack it can tune us in to some of our own bad behaviors. A 360 review is by no means perfect but consider it another tool for revealing a leader’s degree of self-awareness. If the indicators point to the need to act on self-awareness, here are some starting points:
  • Try a short daily mindfulness practice. It will help focus attention on one’s internal and external experiences. Research found that just five weeks of ten minutes of daily mindfulness training increased leaders’ self-awareness by 35 percent.
  • Many of those negative behaviors result from habitual thinking and behavior. Taking a regular short break of just one minute reduces acting habitually and instead increases our awareness about our own actions. Just one caveat: Make it a device-free break. A great one for library leaders is walking into the stacks and searching through the call numbers for a book; it’s a simple task that takes your mind off other matters.
  • Our brains love simplicity. This also turns us into poor listeners because it’s easier to fall back on our preceonceptions than pay attention. This is bad because it eliminates the likelihood we hear others’ concerns and needs. Focus on turning off the inner voice that shapes our thinking and responses before we even process what we hear.
  • It always helps to be open to new ideas, to be curious, and to expose yourself to information that challenges your assumptions.

It’s a Learnable Skill

Leadership traits related to emotional intelligence, as self-awareness is, may appear to be innate behaviors that we either have or never develop. To an extent, it can depend on what happens in our past to build the personal capacity for the type of reflection and empathy that drive self-aware behavior. Rest assured that it is possible to grow more self-aware. Even emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, writing about self-awareness, believes it is a learnable skill, one that keeps us centered and flexible in how we respond to situations. Experts tend to discuss building self-awareness in terms that are comparable to building a better diet or exercise regimen. It’s a commitment to self-improvement. With self-awareness, the rewards are better job satisfaction for leaders and their staff. That sounds like a worthwhile investment of the time and effort needed to become a self-aware library leader. Start by asked yourself this question: Am I a self-aware leader?
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