In Australia we recently witnessed the demise of former prime minister, Mr Tony Abbott. It provides an important opportunity for us to reflect on the situation and our own leadership.
Many of us heard a collective sigh of relief from the Australian people when learning of Mr Abbott’s departure from his role was palpable to everyone except him, evidently. He has since said he could have won the next election, if not for the “treachery of the party room”. Through his pm-ship he frequently blamed the opposition, the independents, the media and anyone else that stood in his way for the lack of progress. He blamed various players for not telling him there was a problem….. Really?
As a leader, would you want to be in this predicament? It seems Tony Abbott was in the dark. He wasn’t hearing the public’s dissatisfaction with his aggressive, dispassionate style, his inability to communicate a clear vision, his gaffs or his ineffectiveness to influence his colleagues without control.
So what is going on here? Looking at the symptoms, Mr Abbott displayed a strong lack of self awareness. He was not reading the impact he had on others (he even had to be told that his lead-ership was at risk). He was not aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and his own values seemed awash with incongruence. Privately he was considered a nice guy, publicly he most certainly was not.
Self awareness is the ability to have a realistic, honest view of self. Being knowledgeable about your values, your strengths and weaknesses, your beliefs, your own moral compass, motivations, thoughts, emotions and behaviour. The ability to distinguish what’s true about yourself and what might be the stories running through your mind. It enables the consistency between what we think, what we say and what we do. Without self awareness how can any leader be authentic?
It’s a dangerous vulnerability, when you don’t know yourself. Being blindly at the effect of events and people and your fears and fantasies simply says ‘out of control’. The danger of low self aware-ness is apparent in this story. Mr Abbott was blind-sided. He hadn’t read the situation. He wasn’t aware of his apparent impact on others and his decisions often appeared at odds with his espoused values. The greatest danger of low self awareness is the loss of confidence in the leader and the disengagement of followers. In this case, his team and the Australian community.
Self awareness is the gateway to effective leadership. Knowing yourself helps you make constructive decisions that guide your actions. You know what is driving your behaviour and you own your role in outcomes. If you have good self understanding, you have a better chance of understanding others, or at least looking a little deeper into a person. Self awareness supports better self regulation – ability to control and make wise decisions about our thinking and reactions. We can determine when to be ‘appropriately vulnerable’. With awareness comes the crucial leadership capability of reflection and adaptation for ongoing effectiveness. With self awareness comes conscious choice.
What do followers experience when someone leading has low self awareness? Mistrust of the leader, little honesty, disengagement, lack of respect, and uncertainty about what the person stands for. This can lead to followers being blamed for outcomes (as the leader doesn’t see their own role in the situation), becoming passive, even undermining of the leader, and ultimately avoiding contact all together. The leader is likely to be unaware of what’s really going on in the organisation. The team’s performance will eventually be negatively impacted.
It’s a shame that people who are leading are not held accountable for such a fundamental leadership skill as self awareness. The lack of it should be seen as negligent!
While a topical example of the danger of low self awareness, Mr Abbott does not stand alone. Think about the number of people you have worked with who demonstrated similar symptoms. Or look to the media as we see those leading in a variety of roles who may fall prey to this same lack of core capability.
What does it take to develop self awareness? How can you best demonstrate it?
Jackie Crispin Brown – October 2015