The 4 Things I’d Tell My Younger Self About Self-Aware Leadership

The 4 Things I’d Tell My Younger Self About Self-Aware Leadership

Or, Why My Team Used To Hate My Guts — And How I Won Them Back 

My name is John and I'm a competitor. I’ve played to win as long as I can remember.  

Competitiveness is usually a desirable trait in business. But in my early days, my style caused me a lot of grief, alienation, and even lost revenue.  

My first big post-MBA gig was CFO of a $60 million foreign subsidiary at a revered global company. I was responsible for all financial operations, from accounting and financial planning to tax and treasury. But my new team desperately needed a turnaround. Skills simply weren't up to par. It was a fantastic opportunity for a guy looking to make a name for himself. Which I was.  

Suddenly the stakes got higher. Our subsidiary was anointed HQ for a country “cluster," absorbing two other subsidiaries and an additional export market. Now I had three teams in a $200 million organization spread across five countries.  

Did I rise to the challenge? Absolutely. And I did it all fast. I created a shared-services center, saving the company millions. I cleaned up accounting messes and ensured strict adherence to accounting policy. I slashed accounts receivable, generating millions in cash flow. I dramatically improved sales forecast accuracy.  

And Everyone Hated My Guts

While I was improving company operations on virtually every key financial metric, I was also alienating my executive colleagues. I realized eventually that most of them hated my guts. Why? Because instead of battling the company's rivals, I was competing against my teammates. It didn't matter that they were VPs of sales, marketing, logistics — or even the CEO.  

I wasn't malicious. I just wanted to outshine everyone. I said I was working to achieve the company's goals, but in truth, I was more focused on making myself and my finance team look good. My motivation was about my objectives and my team.  

The results of this ego-centric approach were predictable. On the heels of previously strong growth, company sales sputtered during my four-year tenure. I did nothing to increase revenue for the company. Through my militant enforcement of policies, procedures, and controls, sales and marketing developed a severe distaste for finance — and for me. The subsidiary CEO could barely conceal his disdain when I walked into a room.  

Years later, the VP of logistics told me there had never been more antagonism and infighting than during my time there. Yikes.  

How strong (or weak) are your awareness muscles?

Maybe you've exhibited ego-centric leadership, or witnessed it, or been party to it. Here’s a clue: If people in your company complain about “silos," you almost certainly have a culture of ego-centric leadership.

This type of competitive leadership is not uncommon. During my 25 years in senior roles at Fortune 100 companies, and in my work as an executive coach, I've seen this movie play out all too many times.

But most people want to do the right thing. They want to live in a way that is congruent with their values. So when I observe a gap between clients' behaviors and their values, I find it’s usually because they haven’t learned how to habitually exercise their awareness muscles — self-awareness, interpersonal awareness, or situational awareness.  

To develop stronger awareness, you must proactively seek feedback from people who know you well and have your best interests at heart. Then get expert help to interpret and act on that input.  

My non-scientific observation is that about 80% of your self-perception agrees with others’ perceptions of you.  

But it’s the 20% disagreement that holds your gold. This is where you’ll find your blind spots: the traits, behaviors, and perceptions of which you're genuinely unaware. Shining light on these nuggets offers opportunities you've never experienced before.

The 4 Essential Steps to Self-Aware Leadership

Over the years, I sought out the best mentors and coaches I could find. They've helped me see myself in ways I never understood before. Sometimes that hurt, but it has been worth it. I'm convinced I would never have served in senior leadership roles at places like Microsoft without it.  

To my younger self, and to you, I say: Acting on those blind spots is going to be hard. Painful even. Working on them will be harder. You'll want to turn away and pretend they're not real. But if you're committed to your personal development, embracing your blind spots and committing to overcoming them is where the payoff lies.  

Here are the 4 steps to take:

1) Rally a group of friends, colleagues, employees, and others you can trust to provide honest input about your leadership habits, communication style, and other behaviors in and out of the office.

2) With a skilled coach or advisor, start to watch, record, and alter any behaviors that could slow or stop your career growth.

3) Now formulate and test new behaviors, tracking how well they stack up to comparable old habits and patterns.  

4) Get used to viewing yourself from perspectives other than your own; practice self-awareness through the eyes of your team and stakeholders until it becomes a strong habit.  

Sharpening your awareness can dramatically increase your leadership effectiveness. But recognition and commitment are only the beginning. Find a trusted confidant, mentor, or executive coach who has the skill to help you frame up the feedback and help you design experiments and practices to get stronger. Then practice, get additional feedback, and practice some more.  

Moving your leadership to the next level

I eventually woke up to my bad behavior. In some ways, I'm still waking up. It's hard work.  

You're committed to becoming a better leader or you wouldn't have read this far. The only question now is whether you're willing to open your eyes to the painful truths lurking in your blind spots. That's what the best leaders do, over and over again.  

Sign Up For My Articles

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form

Related Posts

How Overloaded Executives Can Make Time for What Matters Most

The price of cutting ourselves short can be very high, but the good news is that we don’t have to live that way forever, even if that’s our usual habit.

Read More

What to Do When Your Boss is the Devil Himself

Although it might be natural to want to get away from a nasty boss, in my experience the best course of action is something very different.

Read More

Six Keys to Life-Changing Feedback

Even though it is not always easy, when you offer and receive feedback with genuine intent, it can be a life-changing gift.

Read More

What Craig the IT Guy Taught Me About Life, Death, and Work-Life Balance

Virtually all my clients say that they want improved work-life balance. Here are four tips from the WW work-life balance initiative I led at Microsoft.

Read More

Values Are The Key to Making Tough Choices

I find that many of my clients figuratively navigate dangerous terrain all the time. In these situations, our values serve as our best compass.

Read More

How Top Execs Solve Their Toughest Leadership Challenges

Leaders want counsel from someone who understands where they’re coming from, and who has the skill to push them to create real shift in their thinking.

Read More

The One Simple Phrase That Ensures You Get the Results You Expect

Leaders don't always get the results they expect, but here's how to do it through a simple phrase.

Read More

The Four Keys to Earning Your Team’s Trust

Some leaders try to exert their influence through their authority, but great leaders create true followership by continually earning their people’s trust.

Read More

The True Meaning of Courage Isn’t What You Think

True courage is not the absence of fear, a mindset, or even an emotion. It's a principle of action.

Read More

Four Simple Ways to Awaken Your Focus and Concentration at Work

Here are four ways to increase your leadership effectiveness at work by cultivating the skill of consciousness.

Read More

You're Not an Imposter

If you’re struggling with self-doubt, the first step is to tame your monkey mind.

Read More

What to Do When a Rising Star's Team Can't Stand Him

To learn to play well with others, this corporate tyrant had to gain a “view from the balcony.”

Read More

Three Simple Steps for Making the Right Call Under Fire

To know how to respond in high-stress situations, you've got to start by getting into flow – just like a professional athlete.

Read More

Knowledge Is Good – But It’s the Enemy of Great

How openness to being wrong serves as a force multiplier for the smartest leaders

Read More

To Become More Successful, Open Your Eyes to True Success

There are levels of winning beyond just winning.

Read More

Leadership Doesn’t Happen by Accident—It’s a Choice

The difference between being a leader and being a victim starts with mindset.

Read More

How A ‘Work Persona’ Undercuts Your Long-Term Success

Your genuine self is more effective than your fake self. Learning to dial into your talents and values is the surest way to speed up your career growth.

Read More

How My Personality Almost Wrecked My Career (And How I Fixed It)

The behaviors that limit us are often rooted in the same traits that've made us successful.

Read More

Authenticity at Work: Is There Such a Thing as “Too Real?”

Choosing authenticity at work can be a risky move. Here’s how to know when it’s right.

Read More

Three Reasons You’re Not Getting Promoted (And How To Fix Them)

Conquer your career derailers and get back on track.

Read More

What I Learned From (Almost) Getting Fired As CFO Of Microsoft North America

Yesterday’s recipe for success isn’t enough to master today’s challenges.

Read More

How My Near-Death Experience Sparked The Biggest Career Change Of My Life

When life hangs by a thread, we realize what really matters most.

Read More

The Unexpected Combination For Mastering Executive Presence

Confidence alone will only take you so far. To get to the top, you need humility too.

Read More

C-Suite Exec: How To Become Your Company’s Moral Compass

Contrary to what execs might expect, adopting a work persona limits their ability to serve as the moral compasses their companies often so desperately need.

Read More

Your Team Doesn’t Deliver? Here’s the Reason Why.

Practice this simple two-step technique to start getting the results you expect.

Read More

What COVID-19 Taught Me About Freedom, Crisis, and Myself

How to Stay At Your Best During A Pandemic 

Read More

How To Stop Failing At Scaling — And Start Winning At Delegating

The 4 Keys to Effective Delegation

Read More

My Top 5 Practices for Leadership During Global Crisis (Or Anytime)

25 Years Condensed Into 5 Incisive Practices 

Read More

I’ve Been Complicit In Systemic Racism. Here’s What I’m Doing To Change.

4 Actions Whites Can Take Today to Start Dismantling Systemic Racism

Read More

Stalled Career? You May Be Overestimating Your Self-Perspective

Use Performance Journaling to Gain “Executive Presence” 

Read More

If Money Is Your Main Motive, You Probably Won’t Get Promoted

Find Your Promotion “Sweet Spot” In Three Steps

Read More

Secretly Wishing for a Different Career? How To Turn Your Passion Into Reality

Managing Your Own Value Polarities Can Make That Dream Job Possible

Read More

What’s Love Got To Do With The Workplace?

How (And Why) Great Leaders Practice Love In The Workplace

Read More

Start The Year With This Mind-Opening Leadership Exercise

The Annual 3-Step Self-Awareness Checkup

Read More

Why True Leaders Never Blame Others (Or Circumstances)

Read More

Why You May Be A Worse Leader Than You Think

It’s Time To Address Your Blind Spots 

Read More


Executive Coaching

Team Coaching

John assesses teams through qualitative and quantitative measures, then helps you build the path to high performance.

Build your Team
Executive Coaching

Executive Coaching

John's coaching draws on more than 25 years in senior leadership roles at Microsoft, Novartis, and Kodak.

Maximize Your Potential
Leadership Assessments

Leadership Assessments

As a Certified Practitioner of the Leadership Circle, John utilizes best-in-class tools to assess and develop you and your team.

Learn More