Self-awareness is crucial for evolving and finding coping strategies for weaknesses. An excerpt from “How To Become a Better Leader.” Image: PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has said that she benefited from feedback from mentors.

Image courtesy of PepsiCo.

How can leaders recognize and manage their psychological preferences?

In a wide-ranging article for the Spring 2012 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, authors Ginka Toegel, a professor of organizational behavior and leadership at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Jean-Louis Barsoux, a professor of organizational behavior and leadership at IMD, lay out findings from more than 2,000 in-depth conversations with international executives.

In this excerpt from How To Become a Better Leader, the authors examine the role of self-awareness, which they deem crucial for evolving and finding coping strategies for weaknesses:

A survey of 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council rated self-awareness as the most important capability for leaders to develop. Executives need to know where their natural inclinations lie in order to boost them or compensate for them. Self-awareness is about identifying personal idiosyncrasies — the characteristics that executives take to be the norm but actually represent the exception.

Sometimes self-awareness comes early in one’s career, prompted by a comment from a trusted colleague or boss. In an article in Fortune International, Lauren Zalaznick, now chairman, Entertainment & Digital Networks and Integrated Media for NBC-Universal, recalled that the best advice she ever received was from her first boss, who told her: “Throughout your career, you’re going to hear lots of feedback from show-makers and peers and employees and bosses. If you hear a certain piece of feedback consistently and you don’t agree with it, it doesn’t matter what you think. Truth is, you’re being perceived that way.”

On her rise to the top, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has also benefited from constructive feedback: “I’m a pretty honest and outspoken person,” she told the Wall Street Journal Europe. “So, you sit in a meeting and somebody presents a … five-year plan. [Other executives] would say, ‘You know, that’s very interesting. But maybe you could think about this slightly differently.’ I just said, ‘That’s crap. This is never going to happen.’ I’m sure they were all thinking that, but they were saying it in a much more gentle way. I’d come out of the meeting, and one of the guys would pull me aside and say, ‘You could have said the thing slightly differently.’”

Over the past two decades, companies have increased the opportunities for executives to gain insight into their personalities and receive feedback from multiple sources. These instruments can even be distributed to friends and family, who may be only too pleased to enlighten their loved ones on how they come across. And self-awareness is one of the most frequently cited outcomes of leadership coaching.

But some executives resist this process for a long time. Take the case of David Pottruck, the former CEO of Charles Schwab. Earlier in his career, he was summoned to his boss’s office and told that his colleagues did not trust him. As Pottruck recalled in the Harvard Business Review, “That feedback was like a dagger to my heart. I was in denial, as I didn’t see myself as others saw me. … I had no idea how self-serving I looked to other people. Still, somewhere in my inner core the feedback resonated as true.”

For further details on how executives need to understand their natural inclinations in order to modify them or compensate for them, see the full article.

3 Comments On: Self-Awareness: A Key to Better Leadership

  • akira | May 15, 2012

    Once you identify a weakness, you still have a very important decision to make:

    The more common path is to spend a lot of time trying to shore up the weakness.

    The less common – but ultimately more satisfying – path is to ignore the weakness and build a management framework that enables you to make the most of your strengths.

    If you hate numbers, why be a numbers guy? If you are socially awkward, why attend networking functions?

    People can build perfectly successful careers focusing on strengths and avoiding the things they dislike or are not good at.

    Akira Hirai, CEO
    Cayenne Consulting
    http://www.caycon.com/

  • pshah | May 19, 2012

    Self Awareness has been identified a rather big issue with technology leaders especially in emerging markets due to the lack of peer ecosystem and limited exposure to cross functional teams.

    Mature organizations are now just beginning to invest in executive coaches, doing 360 degree assessments and executing on long term improvement plans through continuous coaching.

    Pinkesh Shah
    Director Programs
    Institute of Product Leadership, India
    http://www.productleadership.in

  • iobm11 | June 4, 2012

    At the time of admission to Engineering College I had no idea what prospects various disciplines have. My mother suggested Metallurgical Engineering. I complied but later I heard my inner voice ” Be a teacher and help others by sharing knowledge, skills and attiude” I switched to Teaching and am enjoying.
    Moin Khan
    Institute of Business Management,Karachi
    Pakistan

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