If you want to improve as a leader, first look in the mirror because it starts with self-awareness. Research shows that leaders who are self-aware are perceived as more authentic and transparent, have more engaged and productive teams, and enjoy better relationships with those teams. But how do you get there? How do you become self-aware in the first place?

The first step toward improved self-awareness is rigorous self-assessment. Yet clear-eyed, honest self-assessment is tricky given the biases we use to protect ourselves from reality and self-criticism. To help, here are four questions to get you started on a self-awareness journey.

Question #1: What don’t I know about the things I don’t know?

At some point we all must confront an uncomfortable truth: we don’t know everything. We don’t have the answers for everything. But the good news is, as a leader, it’s not your job to know everything. It’s your job to assemble and grow your team, people with unique skills, specialties, and expertise. Great leaders tap into and leverage this collective knowledge to inform decisions and map the course for their company and industry. Accept that you don’t know everything and that you don’t have to. Be honest about your knowledge gaps.

Question #2: How much honest, unfiltered feedback do I really get?

Probably not much. Few leaders are fortunate enough to get genuine and constructive feedback about their performance and even critical issues within the company. Yet honest feedback from your team is one of the only ways to know for sure how you’re doing as their leader. Ask yourself, how much of that kind of feedback do you really get?

If you find yourself thinking, “My people can come and talk over anything, anytime with me,” or, “My job is to care about results. If some get offended along the way, so be it,” then chances are you’re not getting the kind of feedback you need—nor allowing it to happen.

If that’s the case, try these tips to get more authentic and helpful feedback from others.

Question #3: How much empathetic listening do I practice on a regular basis?

As leaders, we naturally seek to take command, direct conversations, or focus on formulating our answers rather than actively listen to the other person. Every leader needs to talk less and listen more.
Even better is empathetic listening. To listen empathetically, we strive to recognize verbal and nonverbal cues, including tone and body language. In other words, we receive information from all of our senses, not just hearing.

To listen empathetically also means we listen deeply by engaging not just our minds, but our hearts. We allow our intuitive wisdom to help us discern what’s not being said. When leaders listen empathetically, people feel more fully seen, understood, and heard.

Question #4: What is my level of willingness to change?

Most of us have worked hard to become good leaders. We’ve gone to trainings and leadership programs, learned and practiced new skills, read books, taken leadership assesments, and had 2722coaches and mentors. After all that effort, it’s natural to go on autopilot and think, “I’ve got this.”

The problem is, no matter how successful or talented we are, we will still make mistakes and develop bad habits. In addition, business environments steadily change, sometimes so subtly we don’t notice. That means that what once worked may now be ineffective and we need to adapt. But are you willing to change?

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
– Carl Jung

I’ve learned as a coach that a leader’s capacity to change is directly related to their willingness to change. Leaders who have a high degree of willingness have 1) a learning mindset, 2) a thirst for trying out new solutions to traditional leadership issues, and 3) a desire to refine their leadership competency. They also commit to a discipline of leadership practice. Do these traits describe you?

Developing self-awareness can be awkward and uncomfortable. We may even be embarrassed at what we learn about ourselves. A willingness to change helps you preserve and maintain your optimism in spite of this.

Like many qualities, self-awareness is not a fixed trait. It’s a skill that can be learned and cultivated intentionally. Start by asking yourself these four questions. Your goal isn’t to answer immediately or to have a perfectly formulated response to each question. Your goal is simply to start becoming aware. The deepest work is in the art of asking, and attuning to what arises, so that you can take leadership of your leadership skills, and in turn, best lead your company forward.

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