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Why Business Leaders Need To Build Greater Self-Awareness

Senior executives don't seek coaching or leadership development. Here's why.

A recent study by the Stanford Business School found that nearly two-thirds of CEOs don't receive executive coaching or leadership development. And almost half of senior executives in general aren't receiving any, either. Paradoxically, nearly 100 percent said they would like coaching to enhance their development, as both Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Forbes reported in recent articles.

So, why do CEOs and other senior leaders say they want coaching but don't seek it?

I think the answer lies in what they've learned to think coaching provides, in contrast to what they think they need. Both views create a gap between desire and action. Ironically, that gap is unwittingly supported by most coaching programs, themselves.

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That is, most omit or misconstrue the core coaching element that CEOs need to grow their skills and effectiveness: Increased self-awareness, honest self-knowledge, about one's motives, personality capacities and values. The consequences of this absence play out in ways that diminish the relevance of coaching in the eyes of most senior leaders.

Self-awareness is crucial to leadership and it can be heightened through coaching. To explain why and how, consider the obvious but insufficient explanation for the paradox that CEOs want coaching but don't pursue it. Stephen Miles, CEO of the Miles Group, that partnered with Stanford on the study, pointed out that to CEOs, "coaching is somehow "remedial" as opposed to something that enhances high performance, similar to how an elite athlete uses a coach." Moreover, CEO's say they're most interested in such skills as conflict management and communication. Yet they put the need for compassion, relationship and persuasion skills far down on their list. They think of the latter as "soft skills," ancillary at best.

Both views reflect CEOs' perceptions. But those, in turn, reflect the failure of coaching programs to show that the infrastructure of successful leadership vision and behavior is heightened self-awareness about one's motives, values, and personality traits. That's especially true within today's challenging, fluid environment. Because of this failure, coaching programs unknowingly collude with CEOs' view that self-awareness is either irrelevant to leadership or of minor importance.

The higher up you go in companies, the more you're dealing with psychological and relational issues. Successful CEO leadership requires astuteness about others: their emotional and strategic personal drivers; their self-interest, overt and covert. These relationship competencies rest on a foundation of self-knowledge, self-awareness. And you can't know the truth about another without knowing it about yourself.

Self-knowledge and the relational competencies they're linked with are central to a CEO's ability to formulate, articulate and lead a strategic vision for a motivated, energized organization. Self-knowledge builds clarity about objectives; it fine-tunes one's understanding the perspectives, values, aims and personality traits of others. When that's lacking, you often see discord and conflict among members of the senior management team; or between some of its members and the CEO.

Power and Empathy

Being able to see, understand and deal effectively with others' perspectives is key to successful leadership (as well as personal life). That capacity, part of self-awareness, is empathy. Two recent studies show its crucial role. One looked at the impact of power in an organization upon behavior; the other, its impact upon brain activity. Both studies found that increased power reduces empathy.

One study, conducted by Adam D. Galinsky and colleagues at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, found that increased power tends to make one more self-centered and self-assured, but not in a good way: The researchers found that power makes one "prone to dismiss or, at the very least, misunderstand the viewpoints of those who lack authority." High-power individuals "anchor too heavily on their own perspectives and demonstrate a diminished ability to correctly perceive others' perspectives," according to Galinsky and his team, adding that, "As power increases, power-holders are more likely to assume that others' insights match their own."

The other recent study, by Canadian researchers, found the same thing by looking at brain activity when people have power. They found that increased power diminishes the ability to be empathic and compassionate because power appears to affect the "mirror system" of the brain, through which one is "wired" to experience what another person is experiencing. Researchers found that even the smallest bit of power shuts down that part of the brain and the ability to empathize with others.

These are highly important findings, because empathy, compassion and overall self-awareness are qualities of a developed, mature mind. One that's resilient to stress, able to manage internal conflicts, experiences interconnection with others, and maintains well-being. And, that therefore stimulates broad perspectives for understanding the problems and unpredictable challenges facing CEOs.

Much research shows that such capacities are essential personal strengths; certainly important to effective senior leadership. Moreover, studies find that you can grow them with conscious effort. The emotionally detached, un-empathic person, unaware of his or her personal motives or truths is not going to be very effective as a CEO or senior leader. We see examples of the consequences from time-to-time, when a CEO resigns or is fired.

Building Self-Awareness

Self-awareness builds from honest self-appraisal about emotional strengths and vulnerabilities; your values and attitudes, personality traits and unresolved conflicts. You're a total person, not just a set of skills performing a role.

One of Google's earliest executives, Chade-Meng Tan, teaches a popular course for Google employees that helps build such qualities. It's demonstrated positive benefits for success and wellbeing. And much research confirms that self-examination is critical for leaders' positive development. For example, Scott Keller, a director at McKinsey & Company, described the importance of overcoming self-interest and delusion in the Harvard Business Review. He emphasized the need for openness to personal growth and development, because "deep down, (leaders) do not believe that it is they who need to change..." and that "the real bottleneck...is knowing what to change at a personal level." Self-awareness also expands the capacity to know what not to pursue, not just what to go after, as Greg McKeown, CEO of THIS, Inc., described regarding what he learned from an Apple executive.

Coaching can provide several ways to enhance self-awareness. Here are a few I've found helpful to C-level and other senior executives.

Learn From Your Personal Time-Line: Describe key turning points in both your career and personal life, with an eye to what shaped your values, attitudes and behavior; how your career decisions and experiences have affected your personal development. Identify the consequences, both positive and negative. What does this knowledge point you towards, in terms of reclaiming and growing dormant or neglected parts of yourself?

The Capacities-Gap Exercise: List what you believe are your most positive personal strengths, qualities and personality capacities. Describe how each one has become stunted, blocked or deformed in their expression, in daily life. It happens to everyone. For each gap, describe what steps you could commit to taking, to enlarge those capacities and reduce the gaps in your role as a leader as well as in your overall life.

Identify Your Personal Vulnerabilities: All of us tend to develop a "cover story" along the course of our lives - what I called the narrower, "false" self in a previous post - beneath which is our "secret plot" - the real story, including our emotional blind spots, fears and pockets of dysfunctional behavior that can become hidden drivers of our lives. How can you rectify and grow through them?

Needless to say, effective leadership must also include necessary skills, vision and perspectives. For example, sustainable practices for long-term success, as business executive and sustainability thought-leader John Friedman regularly writes about, here. Another is the movement towards joining business success with addressing social needs, as Richard Branson has described, where "taking care of people and the planet are at the very core of all businesses everywhere in the world." Adding that our current world of transparency and social media demands that "business reinvents itself and becomes a force for good in the world," he's leading a new effort in that direction, called The B Team.

Self-awareness and the growth it supports, combined with such business perspectives and practices, can and should be the heart of executive coaching and leadership programs.

dlabier@CenterProgressive.org

Blog: Progressive Impact

Center for Progressive Development

© 2013 Douglas LaBier

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC.

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