Real Leaders

Are You Your Biggest Problem?

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

I am. I am a big fat problem for myself. So are you. We all are. That’s the way life is. It’s natural to think you are normal…but you’re not and neither am I. We are all quirky as hell. Of course we have a self-protective inner story to tell us that we’re not…but we are…each of us.

Decades of psychological research confirms that our greatest weakness is a lack of self-awareness. 

If you ask five friends to describe your strengths and weaknesses and the impact you have on others those five are likely to say things that are very similar. However, if you wrote down your answers to that same question and compared it to what your five friends say about you…your answers would be the most different. We don’t see ourselves the way others see us. We tend to exaggerate our strengths and make excuses for our weaknesses. Or we make the mistake of thinking our strengths compensate for weaknesses.

Like our family and coworkers don’t care that we’re crabby and short tempered because we mean well…we are just stressed. But that’s just a story. We made it up.

We make up a lot of stories.

The brilliant research on self-awareness, Daniel Goleman, tells us that we are Olympic gold-medal winning self-excusers. We expertly blame and rationalize to shirt responsibility for our frustrations and failures to people and forces beyond our control. The universal human pattern for this is simple.

First, we deny there’s a problem. 

That’s because if there is a problem, we will have to attend to it. We will have to invest energy and do something different. We just wish problems would go away on their own. Maybe if we wish hard enough…

Second, we blame others.

This takes a lot less effort than changing out behavior of ourselves to get a new outcome. We are not very psychologically agile. It’s much easier just to keep doing what we’re doing and blaming others for what doesn’t work.

Finally, we rationalize. 

We accept the previously unacceptable. We convince ourselves it doesn’t matter after all. We even use those terrible words “it is what it is.” This pattern is very common in human relationships going bad. It happens with couples, families and friends. It’s universal because we are all low on self-awareness and high on self-protection.

We judge ourselves through our motives but others by their behavior. 

This is much more than a personal problem. It is a central problem in leadership. It’s why countries go to war, governments stop working, and corporations fail. Research confirms that low self-awareness is the most common, single leadership weakness.

The signs of low self-awareness in leaders are overconfidence, insistence  and closed-mindedness. 

These outer behaviors are most often a mask for inner self-doubt. You see self-doubt as a natural outcome if you don’t have a strong sense of your essential identity. This is the deep, genuine inner ‘you’ that would remain the same no matter if you won the lottery or were forced to live on the street. Sometime when I’m coaching a leader I ask them “who would you be if you had been born and raised by a poor family in a developing country?  Who would you be if you hadn’t gone to college? Who would you be if you were born 200 years ago? “ Yes, I know these are strange questions… they are meant to be.

What I’m trying to get people to think about is who are you at your core?

Who are you independent of your circumstances, your upbringing, your job, your car, your house, your family? Who? How do you find meaning in life? What do you most value? Do you have any commitments or beliefs that you would die for? And if you do…. are you willing to live for them? Are you willing to stand for them? Speak up for them? The best way I have learned to transcend self-doubt is to get acquainted with your authentic, inner self.

The core part of you, your essential self, has no doubts about you or inflated views of your capabilities.

Neither is it self-protective or defensive. This is not New Age woo-woo. Rather it is at the core of deep, life-satisfaction. I have deeply enjoyed working with a few well grounded CEOs. I knew they had capacity to become great leaders because they sought feedback. They had the inner strength to remain non-defensive and very curious about their impact on others. Above all they know who they were, what they stood for and how they felt about important things. They demanded a lot from themselves but were also self- compassionate when they were tired or foolish.  They didn’t pretend to be perfect or to be anybody they were not. At the same time they had no excuses for their own failures.

Confidence without arrogance is extremely powerful.

So how about you? What’s your level of self-awareness? What’s your level of non-defensive confidence? Are you curious enough? Open-minded enough? Do you know what makes your life worth loving? Aristotle said that the best life is one in which you fulfill your nature in the pursuit of a noble purpose.

Do you know what it means to “fulfill your nature?”  

If you do, turn up the volume on your efforts. If you don’t know, invest your energy in becoming self-aware… it is the only foundation that will weather the storms of life.


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