Self-Awareness and the Shadow You Cast

By: Eric H. Prensky

Leading effectively in an organization requires an understanding of your impact on others or the shadow that you cast. As an executive, this becomes even more critical because of the need to drive a team to execute on priorities and pressure to deliver value for shareholders. As Daniel Goleman notes in his article “What Makes a Leader,” intelligence and technical abilities are foundational skills essential for a leader to be successful. However, these skills are necessary but not fully sufficient. Said differently, it is unlikely that technical skills alone will be sufficient to achieve individual and/or organizational success, particularly in the absence of self-awareness (an aspect of emotional intelligence). I have seen first-hand how an executive’s otherwise promising career can be derailed by a lack of awareness regarding their strengths and opportunities as a leader.

As Goleman notes, when a leader moves up through an organization’s leadership pipeline, the technical expertise that they were once known for becomes less significant. Instead, the focus increasingly turns to how the individual leads and influences others. In other words, there is a shift from “doing,” which is reliant on the technical expertise, to “leading,” where self-awareness regarding the effect you have on others is an essential ingredient. As the value that you bring becomes increasingly measured by achieving results through others, developing a deeper understanding of your influencing style and how this impacts your boss, peers, and direct reports becomes more relevant.

For instance, followers look to a leader to model poise under pressure, and emotional reactions can have a detrimental effect when collaborating with peers. You must be self-aware in these situations, thus highlighting the need for insight into your tendencies (particularly under stress) when leading others. Essentially, you must be sure that your intent is aligned with your impact; self-awareness will help to ensure messages are landing as expected.

There are numerous situations in which leaders might find themselves facing potential career derailment in the absence of self-awareness. A common occasion occurs during integration into a new organization, role, or function. This is particularly pronounced if the role has increased complexity in terms of scale and/or scope. Consider the following questions:

  • Have you received strong positive feedback on your technical expertise but were then passed over for one or more promotions?
  • Has your team’s productivity plateaued, or is it having difficulty consistently achieving productivity targets?
  • Have you had difficulty leading your team, resulting in your direct reports not appearing to be fully engaged?
  • Do you find it difficult to inspire your team to achieve key priorities?

If you said “yes” to any of these, take notice, as you may be unaware of the shadow you are casting on others. It may be time to more fully consider your impact on others, or the extent to which you could become more self-aware. Developing self-awareness is an ongoing process—think of it as a journey, rather than a static destination. Feedback is a primary method to accelerate understanding of one’s impact. Standard best practices include feedback from colleagues, validated personality/leadership-style surveys, and in-depth assessment interviews. If resources currently don’t permit these activities, reflect on the questions below to get started:

  • What are your values and what do you stand for?
  • How does this relate to the culture you set for your team?
  • How do others perceive you?
  • What areas of opportunity as a leader are you actively developing?

Seek a trusted thought partner or mentor to explore these questions—someone who will feel comfortable challenging your assumptions and who possesses the insight to help you see things you may not have previously seen or haven’t wanted to see.


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