It’s always pleasant, if uncommon, to find out something you’ve long intuitively believed has been, unbeknownst to you, validated by research. This was the case when I recently came across a study emphasizing the importance of “self-awareness” as a critical trait for successful leaders.
The study was conducted in 2010 by Green Peak Partners and Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. I recently happened across it when the American Management Association cited it on Twitter. The study examined 72 executives at public and private companies with revenues from $50 million to $5 billion.
The research examined a number of executive interpersonal traits, but the finding that most resonated with me was this one:
“Leadership searches give short shrift to ‘self-awareness,’ which should actually be a top criterion. Interestingly, a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success. This is not altogether surprising as executives who are aware of their weaknesses are often better able to hire subordinates who perform well in categories in which the leader lacks acumen. These leaders are also more able to entertain the idea that someone on their team may have an idea that is even better than their own.”
The notion of high self-awareness being a key element in executive success was one I’d never seen data on, but I’d long believed in its importance. Earlier this year I’d written a piece, Why Are So Many Employees Disengaged?, which noted: “The qualities commonly associated with management and leadership—being authoritative, decisive, forceful, perhaps somewhat controlling—if not moderated by a high degree of awareness as to how one comes across and is perceived by others, are also qualities that have the potential to easily alienate those on the receiving end. ”
Self-awareness isn’t one of those big marquee leadership qualities like vision, charisma, strategic thinking or the ability to speak eloquently to an audience the size of a small city… but it’s a quieter ancillary quality that enables the high-octane ones to work. To use a chemistry concept, it’s a psychological catalyst.
Over the years I’ve seen numerous executive careers derailed by lack of self-awareness. Individuals felt they were omnipotent and took crazy risks… or didn’t recognize when actions that felt authoritative were actually demoralizing… or in general didn’t have an accurate “read” on how others were decoding the messages they were sending.
On the other hand, the most effective executives I knew had, I believe, realistic assessments of their own abilities—their strengths and weaknesses, their effect on others, the gaps that needed to be filled.
How should a company use this type of data? Predicting executive success (particularly when one is hiring from the outside) is always, to understate, a tricky business. The Green Peak study noted: “Companies and their investors need to put more effort into evaluating the interpersonal strengths of potential leaders. They should focus more on how a leadership candidate does the work, and not focus exclusively on what he or she has done… However, there are limits to the degree to which an individual can improve his or her basic ability to interact well with others. This means that focusing on interpersonal skills when selecting the right candidate becomes critical.”
I agree. The Green Peak research summary commented that “soft values drive hard results.” That’s a reasonable way to put it. Soft values are no substitute for the more traditional executive skill set—without that you probably won’t get out of the starting blocks—but they’re an underrated, necessary complement for the long run.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
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