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3 Things All Great Leaders Know About Themselves

Driven by a desire to improve what they do, truly committed leaders know more about themselves today than they did a year ago.
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All good leaders possess a heightened sense of awareness--an ability to read situations in which they find themselves and act accordingly.

Great leaders take this one step further. They are not only aware; they are also self-aware. They know much about themselves. Perhaps not everything (who of us knows him- or herself entirely?), but more than most. 

Driven by innate curiosity, passion, and a desire to improve what they do, truly committed leaders know more about themselves today than they did a year ago. If you want to start building your self-awareness in areas that will yield immediate (positive) results in how you lead, start with these three:

Do you typically undershoot or overshoot? The single most immediate area for self-awareness improvement I see in most leaders is to gain a clear understanding of how they set goals (formally and informally). Again and again I work with leaders unaware that they are consistently playing small ball (setting goals that are way too conservative given their talents) or forever overreaching (setting goals they won't achieve, causing disappointment for themselves and exhaustion in their team). 

You can perform a self-analysis by using this routine: Grab a legal pad, write out the last five or six leadership goals you set yourself, and jot down whether or not you undershot or overshot. See if you can decipher a pattern.

Not sure? Ask colleagues. Still not sure? Keep a running log for a month or two.

Once you know which is your tendency, the key of course is to recalibrate your goal setting. If you're undershooting, set your goals higher, step by step. If you're consistently overshooting, lower them, little by little.

Once you've hit your sweet spot and are consistently hitting near or at the goals you set, you will of course want to start edging those goals upward. Nothing wrong with that--pushing goals based on a record of consistent success is a good thing. 

Is your tendency to analyze, fix, or delegate? The second area I see leaders gain the biggest advantage from understanding is in knowing how they respond when things go wrong.

Broadly, there are three possible responses: analyze what just happened; "just fix it"; delegate responsibility for fixing it to someone else. (These broadly map to the Processor, Operator, and Visionary styles of leadership, respectively.)

Try the same exercise as before: Take a yellow pad, list the last five or six things that have gone wrong on your watch, and jot down what you did in response. If in most cases you responded with a mixture of all three possible responses (some analysis, some direction, and some delegation), then all is well. If you consistently responded by going straight to one option (analyze, fix, or delegate), then you have a challenge ahead--you're taking a knee-jerk, and hence blinkered, approach to problem solving.

Try slowing down the time you take to respond when faced with decisions like this. Force yourself to consider all three options: Do I need more information here before making a decision about what to do?; Do I need to intervene here directly?; Is there someone else who could fix this better and quicker than I?

Do you usually say yes or no? This last one is easy to analyze but just as profound: Do you consistently say yes to everything that comes your way, causing you to overcommit and underdeliver? Or do you consistently say no, building a reputation as a stick in the mud and missing opportunities to innovate?

You don't need the yellow pad this time--just go ask folks who know you. If you have a tendency toward one or the other, believe me, they'll know. 

The answer? Well, sometimes the answer even to a leadership challenge is a no-brainer. As one of my earliest mentors said to me when I explained a behavioral problem I was having: "Just stop that. Now."

Download a free chapter from the author's book "The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success," which provides a comprehensive model for developing leadership self-awareness.

Last updated: Apr 15, 2013

LES MCKEOWN | Columnist

Les McKeown is the President & CEO of Predictable Success, a leading adviser on accelerated business growth. He has started more than 40 companies and was the founding partner of an incubation consulting company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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