What's the unsung secret to leadership greatness? According to new research recently written up on HBR, the answer isn't charisma or empathy. It's self-awareness.

"Research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. We're less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we're more-effective leaders with more-satisfied employees and more-profitable companies," writes researcher and author Tasha Eurich on the site.

With that impressive list of benefits, it's clear that self-awareness is incredibly valuable. What's less immediately clear is how to cultivate it. But a team of researchers recently offered one startling suggestion -- spend some time abroad.

Another culture is an excellent mirror.

Plenty of thinkers have argued that time abroad increases important skills for business success like comfort with ambiguity, confidence when confronted with the unfamiliar, and accelerated learning, but the team of social scientists out of Rice University, Columbia, and the University of North Carolina behind this study wanted to test the effects of extended travel abroad on self knowledge specifically.

Does expat life help us see ourselves more clearly? To figure this out, the research team recruited 1,874 participants from business schools and online discussion panels, and then surveyed them both about time spent abroad and how those travel experiences impacted their self-knowledge.

After analyzing the answers, the researchers concluded that contact with other ways of doing things forces folks to make explicit and confront their own beliefs and choices. By thinking through small cultural confrontations, those who live abroad come to understand their values, preferences, and personalities better, and they carry this self-knowledge with them when they come home.

This won't come as a huge shock to expats. As someone who has lived abroad for most of the last 15 years, I've experienced this personally again and again. English reticence taught me how much I value American forthrightness. The huge numbers of Dutch people working less than 30 hours a week I met in Amsterdam stirred me to think critically about work culture across the Atlantic. And the joy with which perfect strangers in Greek restaurants interact with my rowdy toddler, has revealed that, all protestations aside, the U.S. is by no definition a child-friendly country. (We won't even get into the joys of socialized medicine -- I'm not being at all sarcastic -- and adequate parental leave.)  

Sometimes your reflection will terrify you.

Not that this journey of self-discovery is always pleasant. Sometimes a foreign locale holds up a mirror to your deepest beliefs and you don't really like what you see reflected there. (See, for instance, this excellent book that will make many Americans very upset.) But it is undeniable -- assuming you don't get defensive and actually interact with the locals -- extended travel will show you who you really are, unearthing previously hidden beliefs and strengths, as well as weaknesses and blind spots.

"The German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling wrote in the epigraph to his 1919 book 'The Travel Diary of a Philosopher,' 'The shortest path to oneself leads around the world.' Almost 100 years later, our research provides empirical evidence in support of this idea," conclude the study authors.

So if you're brave enough to face who you really are, get packing. Science suggests that a stint as an expat won't just be life changing, it will be great for your career too.

Published on: Mar 23, 2018