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As a senior leader, the most effective tool at your disposal is your own self-awareness. Let me say that again: As a senior leader, the most effective tool at your disposal is your own self-awareness. I hold this belief in part because of how important self-awareness is in being more intentional, but I also believe that the other qualities of effective leadership can be built and refined through greater self-awareness.
When I start working with a CEO as a new coaching client, they’re often very oriented on what they’re doing. And this makes sense — these CEOs are constantly measuring themselves by and being measured by their results. We quickly uncover together, though, that who they’re being is even more important. Want to get better at delegation? Look upstream at your perfectionism and need for control. Want to get better at feedback? Look upstream to your assertiveness or desire to be liked.
As a starting point, I like to explore what I call the Three Horizons of Self-Awareness. These three horizons are: the sensations we experience, the stories we make up and the strategies we enact to get what we want.
Related: Why a Self-Aware Leader Is a Good Leader
The sensations we experience
Sensations are what we perceive in the outside world, such as sights and sounds, and our inside world, such as feelings and emotions. This inside world is where we find the real goldmine of self-awareness. As adults, most of us are very used to living “from the neck up.”
That is, we are great at analyzing and assessing with our brains but rarely check in on what’s happening with our bodies — which is a shame because there’s more to our neurology than our brains alone. We think of emotions as something that happens in our heads, but imagine how fear feels in your gut, or how anger flushes your cheeks, or how sadness constricts your breathing and mists your eyes.
This is all incredibly valuable data, information that can let us know early that something important is happening. As a tactical way to build this muscle, I recommend that my clients write down what they notice, almost like an anthropologist studying themselves. This journaling practice is a great starting point for making the subjective feel more objective. I encourage my clients to keep this journal close, to record things in the moment or after some deep breaths and reflection.
The stories we make up
Stories are the foundation for how we make sense of the world. We could call these judgments or beliefs as well. Imagine that you get cut off by a car on the highway. In an instant, you might feel a flash of anger. Now imagine that you pull up next to the car and notice that the situation is different from what you expected. Maybe the driver is a teenager, obviously flustered and trying to concentrate. Maybe the driver is older but in the backseat is someone who, it appears, is injured. In either case, your stories about the situation would be updated in an instant.
For better and worse, our stories form the basis for how we make sense of the world. They are our thoughts, and they help us explain how the world is, how someone else is and how we ourselves are.
To get greater self-awareness around our stories, I find it’s best to simply start writing them down. Going back to a dedicated journal or notebook, start to articulate all the stories you’re making up, trying to get curious about how true they are. In the example, one story could have been, “This person is selfish,” and another could have been, “I feel angry because I’ve been disrespected.”
Related: 3 Simple Ways to Be More Self-Aware as an Entrepreneur
The strategies we enact
Finally, our strategies are simply what we choose to do out in the world. At a core level, our strategies aren’t simply our actions, but how our actions connect to trying to get what we want. This third horizon of self-awareness is also where we have the most control.
I believe we don’t have any control over our sensations — we feel how we feel when we feel that way. I believe we have some control over our stories — we can rewrite them in time, but most of them are so automatic and subconscious that, in the moment, they just show up. But I believe we have 100% control over the strategies we choose to use.
To get a stronger understanding of your own strategies, start to develop a “greatest hits” album of your go-to moves. Start to write down what you notice yourself doing (e.g., engaging with more aggressiveness or being passive), and ask why you’re doing that enough times to get really clear on what your strategy is. Again, the benefit here comes from making a deliberate effort to practice writing down and noticing yourself across all three horizons.
Tying it all together
Here’s a simple example from a client; let’s call her Shruti. Shruti and one of her direct reports, who we’ll call John, disagreed on the formatting style of a document that was going to the CEO. In that moment, Shruti noticed her primary sensation was frustration, and her primary story was that John didn’t respect her or her point of view.
Here’s an interesting thing she noticed next: Her first strategy was to shut down and let John do it his way, but not because she embraced curiosity and the possibility that John could be right. Oh no, Shruti was hoping the CEO would call John out on the poor formatting!
It’s not just noticing what we do, but really getting curious and honest about the motivation behind it — how our strategies help to address our stories and sensations. In a quiet and indirect way, Shruti was trying to rescue back some of her self-respect by setting up a “gotcha!” moment with John. And, in doing so, she wasn’t being congruent with herself by taking a more intentional approach, such as assertiveness for what she wanted or curiosity to genuinely try things a different way.
In this case and others, though, being self-aware of what is happening is the important first step in choosing a better path.
Related: Why Self-Reflection and Self-Awareness Are Vital Skills for Any Entrepreneur