Self-awareness is not enough

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February 6th, 2013

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A key aim of leadership development programmes is (and should be) self-awareness. The leader who lacks self-awareness becomes a pain, and is ineffective in leading people. This is now widely enough acknowledged that it requires little preamble.

Often I meet people who have things that they do, that don’t work for them in terms of what they really want. Often they can tell me why it is they do what they do (sometimes even going into the depth of their personal history), can even spot it when they are doing it, and therefore qualify as having a lot of self-awareness.

But, what they don’t do, is change the behaviour.

Sometimes they have become addicted to the next great “aha” moment of awareness and are searching for that; sometimes they have just not been helped to actually change their behaviour and don’t know how; and sometimes they think that it’s ok, if they can be aware of it, and that they don’t need to change it. Even more often, I hear it used as an excuse, “just the way I am…”

When dealing with the development of leaders however, it is vital that we move beyond simply being aware, to changing – from self-awareness to self-cultivation.

Here at Roffey Park we run the Embodied Leadership programme, in collaboration with Strozzi Institute, where we work on the cultivation of the self. In this programme we less interested in what you know about, either models or theories about the world or self-awareness, and more interested in whether you are able to do something different – this is embodied learning.

But cultivation of the self is hard work – why would I want to do this? The simple reason is gained through looking at what we are committed to in our lives and our organisations. The question then becomes, who do I need to be, or how do I need to cultivate myself, in order to fulfil on what I care about. This creates the energy to change those things that I know that I do.

Self-awareness is still important in these programmes; it is just seen as a starting point. The progression in this work is:

  1. Attention
  2. Awareness
  3. Choice
  4. Volition
  5. Action
  6. Accountability

In Embodied Leadership we bring attention to how people are leading, engaging others, dealing with ambiguity, dealing with conflict (and many more areas), and we generate awareness. Then we really get moving. When we have awareness we have choice, but making these new choices can be difficult. I have a routine, habits, a current set of practices that keep me repeating the same patterns time and again.

To change, we must bring something forth within ourselves – volition or will-power. It is this that keeps us going. This brings us into taking new actions and having a different level of accountability – not just a case of I know why I am that way, but actually I am working to be different. Then we can be truly accountable.

This process is fairly simple, intellectually, but complex and difficult in practicality. Changing embedded behaviours is difficult, especially when it counts – learning to stand up for ourselves, and being able to do that in a charged meeting with the CEO is difficult to learn. That’s why we develop a set of supporting practices.

Practices are ways in which we can practice the behaviour in a safe space or environment, so that when it comes to the difficult moment it is available to us. One participant I know, decided to begin a practice of disagreeing with opinionated taxi drivers in order to develop the capacity to disagree and say no in important business meetings. In some ways this is simple and obvious – before we start playing jazz, we learn to play the scales.

Too many leadership development programmes, that I have seen, stop at self-awareness. The individual is then left on their own with what to do next. This is not enough! The programme needs to equip the participants with the capability to change, if there are to be transferable results to the business.