Mindful Leadership and Self-Awareness

By Shaun McKenzie, Executive Coach/Facilitator. As an automobile enthusiast, I’ve traveled to Germany several times to drive the Autobahn. For those who are unfamiliar, the Autobahn is Germany’s interstate roadway system famously noted for not having speed limits. It’s a joy to drive consistently at speeds above 100mph/160kph unencumbered by the threat of police seizure. 

There is one critical difference that makes driving the autobahn far safer than driving our interstate highways. European drivers are aware that the far left lane is the high-speed passing lane, only to be entered for passing slower cars. After passing the slower car you immediately reenter the middle lane.

Have you ever encountered someone driving 45mph in the far left lane? If yes, you may have passed them on the right only to peer in to see who is driving and what may be their motivation. I assure you of one thing — they’re usually completely unaware of their behavior. Some leaders are “driving in the left lane” as well, completely unaware of the impact they’re having on the work environment, morale and productivity of the team. 

Research indicates that when we are mindful of the impact of our behaviors, we make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. The bottom line — self-awareness creates better leaders and employees who are aligned and committed to the organization’s goals.

Mindful leadership enables us to be more intentional about our behaviors, encounters and expected outcomes. It’s about “getting on the balcony.” In their book Getting on the Balcony, Marty Heifetz and Ronald Linsky describe this as “the skill of getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony.” It’s an image that captures the mental discipline of stepping back in the midst of an encounter and asking: 

  • What’s really going on here?
  • How is my behavior influencing the outcome of the encounter — positively or negatively?
  • What behaviors do I need to continue to deploy and what behaviors do I surrender?

In their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves describe this skill as “periscoping.” Just as a submarine gathers intelligence of their surroundings by deploying the periscope, the mindful leader is able to “read the room” to determine how their behavior is effectively influencing the team.

Research has also found that as leaders gain more experience and attain more power, their self-awareness is likely to diminish. They attribute this to the likelihood that as you near the top, fewer people are willing to call you out, and often, formal feedback and development processes no longer apply. When no one challenges your behavior, it can lead to blind spots and false confidence.

The good news is that self-awareness can be developed. Here are a few ideas for being a mindful leader.

1. Get on the Balcony

The best way to “get on the balcony” and gain perspective on your leadership style is to solicit objective feedback. Here are some suggestions:

  • Ask your manager, peers and associates what’s working and what you need to do differently to be a more effective leader. Yes, this takes courage and you will be rewarded for showing vulnerability. One caution – after you ask the question, listen carefully, thank them for their honesty and act on the data.
  • Work with a coach to obtain anonymous 360-feedback from the people that surround you in your work environment. This will help you to better understand your strengths and weaknesses. 
  • Take an assessment. There are many assessments out there that will help you identify your blind spots. A couple of my favorites are the DiSC profile and the EQ 2.0 assessment. These tools will provide you with the coordinates for “where you’re coming from,” which is an important step before charting a course for improvement.

2. Reflect on Your Successes and Failures

Determine a time when you have been your most successful. What skills did you leverage? Then reflect on a time when you were not successful. What was different? If you were in a similar situation again, what would you do differently? Keep note of these reflections to see if patterns emerge and what you can learn from and take action on.

3. Focus on the What and Not Too Much on the Why

After receiving feedback, don’t dwell so much on why the feedback was provided. The key is to determine what you’re going to do about it. Specifically, what behaviors do you need to modify or deploy. Ask the person who gave you the feedback “What would that look like if I were to do that differently?” This question will ground the feedback and makes it actionable.  

As a leader, self-awareness is crucial for activating your team, communicating your strategy, and building the relationships that fuel your business. It is important to continue developing your self-awareness — whether you think you have it, or not — because you can never have too much

Arden Coaching can help you “get on the balcony” and gain more self-awareness. Be open to learning more about yourself. It requires a degree of humility — not coincidentally, an important quality of the mindful leader.

Read other articles by Shaun, including “On Being Intentional,” and “Trust: the Cornerstone of Productive Relationships.”

For more about self-awareness and mindful leadership, schedule a consultation with Shaun.