by Prudy Gourguechon – Forbes

I’ve been interested in identifying the fundamental capacities of character, habit and cognition that every leader must have. My search led me to a remarkable document, the Army Field Manual on Leader Development. It was striking to me that the Army places great emphasis on self-awareness as a core leadership capacity, essential to thinking, communicating and professional development.

Self-awareness is a data-gathering and processing skill, not to be muddled, as it too often is in the popular business literature, with a clutch of soft skills like authenticity and compassion. Beware of any writer who suggests that the path to self-awareness is a meditation break, journaling or a contemplative walk in the woods. Diluting or prettifying the concept distracts from the essential point that self-awareness is a specific analytic skill that can be learned, practiced, and needs to be ongoing throughout all work activities.

Self-awareness is a necessary precondition for making the right decisions and developing as a leader. Without self-awareness

• You don’t know your blind spots.

• You don’t know when and how your emotions are distorting your thinking.

• You don’t know what you know and what you don’t know, so you can’t count on yourself to seek necessary additional information.

• You don’t have an accurate sense of your personal strengths and weaknesses.

• You can’t accurately assess social cues so you don’t know how your speech or behavior is impacting others.

• You can’t judge the effectiveness of your communications.

• You can’t practice the essential function of self-regulation.

• You can’t develop as a leader because you don’t know where you need to go.

The essence of clinical psychoanalysis, which I practiced for many years, is to teach people to improve their capacity for self-awareness, using the tools of introspection, reflection, analysis and synthesis.

I’m intrigued by the similarities between this kind of psychological analysis and certain creative analytic functions in business and investing. Both involve scanning vast data sets and seeing patterns and anomalies emerge from what first looks like an unintegrated and meaningless overload of data points.

A gifted healthcare entrepreneur I know has started multiple lines of business because he “sees” things that are systematically overlooked by others. He automatically and continuously scans patient experience and intuits unmet needs and new opportunities to meet them.

I worked with a talented hedge fund portfolio manager who described his process of scanning incoming financial data on hundreds of companies and suddenly “seeing” surprising, anomalous patterns that indicated a promising bet. This perceptual and synthetic process was intuitive and automatic. Only after he noticed one of these intriguing anomalies would he apply more conventional analytic techniques to test his intuition and assign specific value and promise to a stock.

The data in these examples is external, obviously. In the first case, the activity of the healthcare marketplace and patient/family/consumer experience. And in the second instance, stock pricing and movement. But the kind of data and its interface with the person processing it — huge sets that at first appear disorganized and too voluminous but gradually reveal patterns — is very similar to the kind of data that the self-aware leader encounters.

The data points observed and processed via self-awareness are of course internal — seen by turning your gaze inward and looking at your own mind, considering the flickering thoughts, experiences, emotions, perceptions, memories and associations going through it.

The first level of useful information comes in seeing anomalies. What experience seems “lit up,” registering with heightened intensity? What emotion is out of proportion to the situation? When exactly does your self-regulation fail and you lash out at someone?

The next level is to look at sequences. What happened before you made a serious misjudgment? What triggered an exaggerated emotional reaction? What were you feeling about a potential hire who turned out to be a terrible choice?

The third level — and this is where self-awareness leads to really useful self-knowledge — is to look at recurring patterns of sequences. For example, when you know that for you, a particular kind of social interaction leads to a specific feeling state and that feeling state leads predictably to impulsive action, you have an invaluable insight for improving performance and avoiding costly mistakes.

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