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The Leader - Importance of Self-awareness

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“We have spoken with several leaders who claim to be great at developing their people, but when we interview the people they lead, we hear a very different story. In some cases, the leaders in question may be better at demoralizing than developing people. At its worst, this lack of self-awareness can lead to masses of disengaged employees, unhappy customers, and undue stress beyond the workplace”.

This quote from a Gallup Management Journal article on the book, “Strengths Based Leadership” by Tom Rath and Barrie Conchie, are very relevant. As a facilitator, I have come across many instances where the team is very competent and committed but is blocked from performing well because of the leader’s lack of self awareness.

Some time ago I worked with a senior leadership team from a multinational company. In the pre-workshop brief, one of the objectives stated was to enable the team to take initiative without fear of failure, to take on situational leadership, and to be able to express themselves freely without fear of hierarchy. The group consisted of the top management of the company including the CEO who came across as a very receptive person. During the theatre exercises she demonstrated a high level of freedom which helped to open up the group. However when it came to taking on the production projects, she would inevitably take full control of her group. This happened in every single exercise. Most the time she would be centre-stage with the group gathered in a circle around her, and she would be doling out instructions telling each person what they should do and how they should do it.

After the workshop, she again gathered the senior leaders around her and got into a conference where the constant refrain was her saying “I want . . .” Having allowed the facilitator to in a sense take on leadership during the duration of the workshop, she seemed eager to reinstate her identity as the leader of the group.

In another workshop, this time with a well known multinational bank, after a very exciting process, where a lot of insights relevant to delivering excellence at the workplace were shared by participants, including many senior ones, the head of the organization dropped in. He heard part of the final sharing and feedback from the participants who also talked about how much they had enjoyed the workshop. After everyone had spoken, he summed up,

“Now that you have had a lot of fun, it is time to get back to work. Remember that there are tough times ahead and we need to be prepared to put aside a lot of our personal priorities . . . .”

In a few brief moments he had undone a good part of what we had achieved during the workshop and invalidated the learning experience as merely fun and games. Had he been part of the process, had he respected the sharing by his own senior team members, this would not have happened.

In yet another workshop, the summing up by the participants was very deep and powerful and they expressed immense confidence in their ability to work together as a powerful team and take on tough assignments. When it came to the turn of the head of the organization to speak, this is what he said,

“All of you have said wonderful things. But, if you think of the last assignment that we carried out as a team, can even one of you tell me honestly, that you did your best?”

The team froze in stunned silence. This was in complete contrast to what they had done, experienced and shared during the course of an entire day. Without giving them the time to answer, the head went on,

“See? Not one of you can tell me that you did your best.”

He then went on to point out a whole lot of inadequacies, mistakes, shortcomings. By the end his speech the mood was one of deep depression and low energy. The group dispersed, miserable and disillusioned.

One of the essential insights that emerge from the “CorporateTheatre” Leadership workshop is:

If there is a problem in my team or organization, and I am part of the leadership, I must be willing to accept that I am part of the problem. Unless I am willing to accept this, I will neither see the problem nor be able to find the solution.

Obviously this calls for a great deal of openness on the part of the leader. It also calls for a great deal of security and self-acceptance. The leader should be able to see himself or herself as less than perfect and also to accept that she need not be better in every competency than everybody else in the team. Most importantly, once the destination has been defined, and everyone has been aligned to the destination, the leader must be able to step back and let the leadership evolve during the journey according to who knows each part of the journey best, irrespective of seniority, designation, or hierarchy.

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