Literature on leadership fills bookshelves with increasing growth rates and thousands of inspiring leadership articles are published on social media evert day. After intensive study of leadership books and training courses, two main themes seem to crystallize: Firstly, great leaders are those who master and develop themselves based on positive values and principles. Secondly, engaging leaders build healthy relationships based on trust and respect, helping others to develop according to their strengths, achieving great results towards a common goal. In short, great leadership is about being an integer person and achieving extraordinary performance with ordinary people.
If it is so simple, why do we still see so much dissatisfaction at work, so many depressed and overly stressed employees, so many people changing companies? The saying “people join a company but leave a boss” holds true as several studies show that ’bad’ leadership is the Number 1 reason for employees to quit their jobs, mentally and/or physically.
This would lead to the next question, why do all these leadership advises not gain as much traction as they could? Nobody intends to be a ‘bad’ leader, and everybody has generally good intentions. Hence, the key lies in how self-aware we are. While 95% of people belief they are self-aware, only around 15% fully are. Self-awareness is not about nature OR nurture but is defined by nature AND nurture. The key to self-awareness is hence the deep understanding how nature has designed and built us as well as how family, society and education have nurtured us. Here are 3 pointers to further elaborate:
- Nature has given us a subconsciousness out of which we live around 85% to 95% of any waken moment. This subconsciousness is nurtured, coded and programmed from experience, education, upbringing and surrounding – stored on our mental hard disk. If we are not self-aware, we don’t realise when the conscious mind accesses this hard disk. As a result, up to 95% of our daily actions and decision making is rather automated and hard-wired, displayed in behaviours we are not fully aware of.
- Nature has given us a phenomenon called bias; the way we have been nurtured has enforced those biases. The confirmation bias for instance, allows only those additional inputs onto our hard disk that are in line with our other subconsciously stored data/information/experiences. To make it worse, negative experiences such as disappointments, loss in trust or hard feelings impact the subconsciousness, aka mental hard disk, much deeper and longer lasting than positive ones. The so-called attribution bias makes us judge ourselves based on our (general good) intentions while judging others based on their (not so good) actions and behaviours. As a result, we tend to see ourselves through a shining mirror while we see other through a tinted glass.
- Nature has given us a brain with a more emotional section and a rather rational section. The emotional section is mainly nurtured by our experiences, and again mainly enhanced by negative experiences. The rational section on the other hand, is nurtured by our education, through training and lecture. The bad news here, the emotional part of the brain processes inputs faster than the rational part. As result, we end up in emotionally driven behavioural mishaps that we regret shortly after, once rationally analysed – when it is too late.
Putting it all together, while we all have good intentions to nurture ourselves towards improved behaviour, nature plays certain tricks on us. The nurturing process through attending training, talks and speeches, listening to podcasts or reading books is further challenged since nature fills our mind with around 60,000 thoughts a day, 95% of them being the same as the previous day, and makes our mind wandering around 50% to 75% of the time.
Therefore, seeing ourselves, our behaviours as well as our intended behavioural changes in a true objective light becomes very difficult – yet not impossible. As a start, we may change our mindset on this nurturing process, aka education. While many people see education as “filling in” new knowledge into our mind, the true original meaning of education is in fact “bringing out” the best of us – the best of our mind and behaviours. Here are some thoughts that may help the interested reader to embark on sustainable behavioural change in order to bring out the best in us:
- Accepting that we think and act largely from a subconscious level, saying and doing things of which we are not fully aware at the very moment and which are often not in tune with our original intention. While we learn best from mistakes, the main challenge lies in realizing and accepting the mistake in the first place. When receiving (constructive) feedback, we naturally tend to choose fight or flight, i.e. to argue back based on our initial good intention or to completely avoid the situation. A more nurtured reaction would be an appreciation of the feedback as true reflection. This requires a lot of courage. As Stephen R. Covey said: “Self-Awareness involves deep personal honesty; it comes from asking and answering hard questions.”
- Becoming more aware of our thoughts by finding moments of stillness. This is where the famous “taking a deep breath” comes in handy as it allows our rational brain to catch up with the emotional brain and hence displaying a more responsible behaviour or reaction. Our nature of impulsive reactions can be overcome by nurturing moments of stillness, which also help to shut down the flow of thoughts, gaining more clarity about our true self.
- Breaking the behaviour cycle by looking at the 3 Rs of a habit, namely the Reminder, the Routine, and the Reward. If we want to change our behaviour, i.e. the routine, we need to understand which reminder triggers that behaviour and/or which reward we intend to get from it. For instance, people with a rather temperamental behaviours (i.e. routines) are often reminded on former negative experiences and situations in which they felt attacked; as result, they target a reward in feeling superior which results in a routine of outburst. Such people can effectively change their routine by being aware of those reminders and then, when triggered, see the present situation in a new light instead of reacting on past experiences. Alternatively, or additionally, understanding and changing the reward, for example from “I need to get out of this as winner” to “let me try to see the possible good intention of the other person”, can change the routine.
In conclusion, to change a behaviour sustainably, we may not look only at the behaviour / routine itself, i.e. how we act, but more importantly on why we act that way, by understanding the reminder and reward of the respective routine / behaviour.
Thus, self-awareness is the ability to see ourselves through an unbiased mirror for a better understanding of how and why nature and nurture have shaped us the way we are. Any education, any initiative to improve ourselves in the way we behave and lead will flourish with increased self-awareness, which comes along with personal honesty, courage and discipline. Enjoy bringing the best out of yourself.
Read more in our 5-Star rated Self-Coaching Book “Intentionally Becoming Different“.
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