Being attentive to our inner formation as a leader is unquestioningly the greatest gift we can give those we serve.
I can't think of a more defining leadership quality that separates the effective from the exceptional than the gift of self-awareness. An accurate sense of the internal can be a leader's most self-sabotaging, and at the same time, most potent quality.
Jim Collins calls it Level 5 Leadership. These exceptional leaders "build enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will." That paradox is remarkably hard to find.
Accurate self-awareness is elusive to many effective leaders. Leader building often focuses on externals like skills and competencies, rewarding position to the stereotypically extroverted and outwardly confident. Sharpening our minds and building our leadership "toolbox" is fostered over developing our leadership's soul where accurate self-awareness is crucial.
Leaders who lack accurate self-awareness are the most dangerous type. By the outward force of our unchecked inner life, even from a place of noble motives, we can damage people around us and not think to ask how.
The difficult thing about self-awareness is if you don't have it, it's hard to realize you need it.
Read this gold from Parker J. Palmer,
"Leadership is hard work for which one is regularly criticized and rarely rewarded, so it is understandable that we need to bolster ourselves selves with positive thoughts. But by failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well-intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead! Those of us who readily embrace leadership, especially public leadership, tend toward extroversion, which often means ignoring what is happening inside ourselves. If we have any sort of inner life, we "compartmentalize" it, walling it off from our public work. This, of course, allows the shadow to grow unchecked until it emerges, larger than life, in the public realm, a problem we are well acquainted within our own domestic politics. Leaders need not only the technical skills to manage the external world but also the spiritual skills to journey inward toward the source of both shadow and light."
Leaders who are able to hold the tension between personal humility (accurate self-awareness) and professional will, will have a never-ending well from which to inspire and impact.
The brightness of an authentic and transparent journey will eclipse any temporary attraction to a shiny leadership toolbox. This is from where our ability to connect with people empathetically comes. This is from where we can be compelling over the long haul.
Being attentive to our inner formation as a leader is unquestioningly the greatest gift we can give those we serve. My unanswered question for myself is if leaders, or more hopefully how leaders, can foster greater healthy self-awareness?
Collins, Jim. Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap And Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2001.
Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak: Listening For The Voice of Vocation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000.