Woman practicing meditation under the sun

Self-Awareness

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Every day, leaders must show up for work. Showing up in its purest defined form means to appear. However, leaders must do much, much more than arrive at work

Showing up at its most productive state is bringing all our genuineness and energy to the present moment. It requires us to be authentic and to live in the moment. 

The key to becoming an even more effective leader, a genuine leader, is self-awareness. Self-awareness is about making the time to reflect on, and examine, our experiences – our inner self. Influential leaders work hard at developing self-awareness through persistent and often courageous self-exploration. Self-awareness is the key to being present in the moment. 

My experience as an executive coach provides anecdotal evidence that many, if not most, leaders spend minimal time reflecting on and examining their experiences and getting to know themselves more deeply. Recently, I met with a physician leader, and he followed up the meeting with the following, “the session provided a great deal for me to consider and as likely perceived some areas of my life that were long buried and not as well appreciated.” 

Self-awareness requires us to understand the characteristics that comprise who we are and to understand when those characteristics serve us well, and the times they do not. A self-confident, aggressive leader who sets high expectations for her and others may be highly successful in building a business. On the other hand, she also may be viewed as arrogant and insensitive. A caring, supportive leader showing empathy for people is appreciated. This same individual may find it challenging to take a firm stand and act assertively.

Blind spots eventually matter. With the changing nature of business, job demands, and increases in stress, it is inevitable that derailing behaviors eventually will surface. The prevalence of evidence should challenge us to ask, “how well do we know ourselves?” How do we raise our leadership consciousness? How can we improve our ability to lead? 

To become self-aware, we must know our thoughts – where they are and how they affect us. When our thoughts are not in the present, we miss life’s brilliance, understated signals of trouble, and reduce experiencing (seeing, feeling, hearing) what is happening at any given moment. Don’t get caught up in our thoughts, including opinions about our self. They may not be a reality. 

Developing a practice of self-awareness is critical for leaders. What may be helpful is to make distinctions about our many “selves.” We have four distinct selves – thinking self, emotional self, functioning (physical), and observing self. The thinking self is that part of us that prattles away. It never shuts up. It always has something to say. It’s probably babbling away right now. I’d be surprised if it weren’t. What is our thinking self saying to us right now? 

Our emotional self deals with our emotions, how we deal with those emotions, and also our self-esteem. Attention regulates emotion. Selected attention can regulate the amygdala, the part of the brain that plays a crucial role in processing emotions. Therefore, developing a strong understanding of our emotional self increasing being at choice – choosing to respond, or not to react and, additionally, how to respond.

The physical self comprises our health, how we feel physically, and our physical self-concept. People with a positive physical self-concept and that carry out physical activity score higher for psychological well-being. 

Lastly, the self that is key to developing deeper awareness is the observing self. This self is different from our thinking self, emotional self, or physical self. It is the side of us that notices without judging the other-selves. It is the part of our mind that can be aware of whatever we are thinking or feeling or doing at any moment. 

Observing is sensing or experiencing without judging or classifying the experience. The benefit of this practice is that as the mind becomes quiet, we notice things without a running commentary of a loquacious mind. Preoccupation, rumination, distraction, and daydreaming are all examples of a talkative mind.

Mindfulness to our inner self works to help us gradually overcome the grip of specific thoughts, feelings, and sensations. By observing ourselves, we learn that thoughts, feelings, and sensations do, indeed, come and go and reduces the intensity of emotions. Noticing what goes on in our mind without reacting to the content of our thoughts douses fear and flight reactions. The goal is to allow ourselves to notice, in the moment, whatever is happening. 

So what is mindfulness? In short, it means to develop the ability to be fully present in the moment. It is about developing ways to help us become self-aware and thoughtful and allow us to slow down and open our mind and spirit. Mindfulness practices can include everything from jogging, taking nature walks, pausing during our day to reflect, prayer, journaling, and meditation. Some of my favorite mindfulness practice ideas are listed in an HBR blog in March 2014 – Mindfulness For People Who Are Too Busy To Meditate.  

If you need more convincing is about mindfulness habits read The Daily Habit Of These Outrageously Successful People in the July 5, 2013 edition of The Huffington Post. 

In dealing with the complexities of today’s changing world, it is more important than ever to develop self-awareness because we are continually having new challenges and demands placed on us. We change positions or roles frequently and are called upon to display diverse talents at different times in our careers. Likewise, behaviors required for success at one level of the organization can become liabilities at the next level. 

Showing up as a leader in the way we honestly and authentically want to show up is not an autonomic process. It is a conscious act, a voluntary act. 

May my mind come alive today

To the invisible geography

That invites me to new frontiers,

To break the dead shell of yesterdays,

To risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more.

O’Donohue, John (2008-03-04).

To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (p. 9). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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