Oswald Letter

Master self-awareness to grow as a leader

Soon I'll be running this cityby Dan Oswald

How well do you really know yourself? It can seem like a silly question. You spend every day with yourself. You’re privy to all of your most private thoughts. Yet how well do you know yourself?

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” Do you possess the true wisdom associated with self-awareness?

Warren Bennis, a renowned author on the topic of leadership, wrote that self-awareness is “the most difficult task any of us faces. But until you know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word.”

We’ve all known people who are incredibly bright or impressively experienced yet somehow are not self-aware. Not even a little bit. And that lack of self-knowledge is their undoing. They may be smart, they may be experienced, but they do not have the wisdom associated with self-awareness. And as Lao Tzu points out, if you don’t know yourself, it’s impossible to master yourself.

Often, management gurus encourage us to examine our own weaknesses. It’s a noble undertaking to reflect on the things we’re really not good at. And if we’re able to be brutally honest with ourselves, it can be really productive to analyze our weaknesses. If we’re self-aware enough to identify the things we’re not good at, we can be more effective leaders because it allows us to surround ourselves with others who can offset some of our deficiencies.

Just as important as understanding our own weaknesses is knowing our strengths. At first blush, you might think it’s much easier to know what you’re good at than admit to what you stink at. But knowing what you’re really good at is as difficult as understanding your weaknesses. That’s because it requires the same brutal honesty to admit that we’re not good at everything. For some of us, the list of what we’re really good at might be painfully short.

But like admitting your weaknesses, knowing your true strengths is a critical factor in being a successful leader. Self-awareness allows you to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes, and that’s what permits you to continue to grow. If you don’t know your own weaknesses, you can’t do anything to correct them. And if you don’t know your own strengths, you can’t build on them.

In the book Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? author Marti Smye quotes Bud Bray as saying, “The most successful people are those who don’t have any illusions about who they are. They know themselves well, and they can move in the direction of their best talents. They know the kind of culture they thrive in and how they can benefit from that culture. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand themselves. Most people don’t want to lose their illusions about themselves, although they say they want to take charge of their career.”

To successfully lead others, you must master the art of self-awareness. It’s not easy to admit our flaws, but you can’t overcome your weaknesses or leverage your strengths if you don’t know what they are. Lose your illusions about yourself, and truly get to know who you are. It’s the only way you’ll be able to continue to grow as a leader.