How to Improve Your Leadership Through Self-Awareness

Know thyself.

In today’s nonprofit workplace, many managers lead their people by default and reaction. Some are promoted to positions of leadership without proper training, and others neglect their own leadership development, citing limited time or competing priorities.

According to human capital research firm i4cp’s Critical Issues Survey, for 30 years organizations have ranked leadership development as either their first or second priority from a list of nearly 90 human capital topics. Despite massive investments in leadership development during the past three decades amounting to what is a multibillion-dollar industry today, the state of leadership remains dire.

In my experience, we overcomplicate leadership development with complex initiatives and significant investments that yield little return. When I talk to leaders about how to develop their leadership style, I always begin with self-awareness. Why? Because for leaders to actually influence, motivate, or have any effect on other people, they must have 1) a clear picture of what strengths and weaknesses they bring to the position and 2) a well-defined, consistent approach for how to apply those strengths and compensate for the weaknesses.

PIctured: a group of penguins following a leader in migration. This symbolized the importance of leadership through self-awareness.

Like launching a change management effort or building a talent pipeline, managing employees well requires deliberation and a strategic vision. If you are serious about growing your self-awareness capacity, use the following roadmap as a guide.

  1. Determine your strengths. The DiSC personality assessment is one tool for developing awareness, specifically in the context of leading others. DiSC identifies and clarifies strengths and opportunities around team interactions. This profile centers on four different behavioral traits: dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness. DiSC can help you understand how people who don’t naturally think and act like you process information and make decisions. It’s an excellent starting point for developing a self-aware leadership style.
  2.  Reflect on what makes a good leader. When you invest time in building your self-awareness muscle, you also develop an informed mindset around aspirational leadership. After understanding who you are—including your natural strengths and opportunities for development—reflect on leadership examples from your past and current career. Who stands out as a positive leader, and why? Conversely, which leaders did not deliver for you? Learn from these experiences. Identify which traits you wish to embody, and those that you deem ineffective for leadership.
  3. Create your personal leadership vision. Now that you are managing a team, your direct reports are having similarly positive or negative experiences of your leadership. Think through how you wish to behave in your role of newfound influence. Identify which traits you currently hold that serve your leadership vision well, and what qualities are in deficit that you’d like to acquire.
  4. Design a plan for bringing your leadership vision to life. Finally, put all this self-awareness to work. Establish short-, mid-, and long-term goals for making your leadership vision a reality. Write SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) objectives to ensure these goals are actionable, and track progress at regular intervals. Evaluate progress with a 360-degree assessment, to ensure your leadership vision is delivering at all levels within your circle of influence.

For more inspiration on becoming a better leader, check out organizational development consulting firm Brighter Strategies’ new leadership training cohort, part of our Nonprofit Management Series. Contact us today to learn more.

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