Self-awareness in leadership is an ongoing process. It’s a continual checking back in with oneself to see where you’re at, how you’re perceived by others, and what your current strengths and weaknesses are. We don’t improve our self-awareness by taking a one-off personality test that categorizes you into a box, a color, or a series of letters. Rather, it’s a process of pausing and reflecting that takes place over years. 

self-awareness involves deep personal honesty.

Self-aware leaders strive to improve and understand where they’re at and how their thinking and actions are influenced by their experiences. They examine biases and learn how they can overcome these so they view the world in a more realistic way.

Leading in a virtual world is here to stay. We can’t say for certain what that will mean for us as leaders or how the nature of leadership will change. But we can say for certain that it will change. And I believe increasing our self-awareness to the point that it’s a leadership superpower is imperative.

self-awareness is a superpowerI say this because we can only work effectively with others if we get really good at knowing ourselves, our thoughts, our emotional reactions, and our tendencies. Yet, self-awareness is an area that leaders typically least enjoy or spend time on.

They may see it as self-focused or a waste of time. They attend a one-time training and think they’ve got it buttoned down. If this describes you, you may find your leadership skills heavily tested in the current business environment.

Self-awareness becomes a superpower simply by being put to use: It gives you a critical leadership skill many leaders lack.

Self-Awareness Is Both Internal and External

You might think self-awareness is simply being aware of self, but there’s more to it than that. If you want to improve as a leader, first look in the mirror because it starts with self-awareness. Self-awareness is internal, meaning it’s achieved through personal insight. It’s also external, meaning it’s achieved through physical insight.

Personal insight gives us the ability to see, with radical clarity, our limiting behaviors and beliefs and how those behaviors and beliefs impact our leadership. Leaders with a depth of self-understanding are well versed in their personal strengths and weaknesses. They manage them to optimize their leadership impact.

Physical insight is about body awareness and non-verbal communication. To truly master self-awareness leaders must learn how they communicate (or not) with their bodies, how this reflects their emotional state, and how this affects their trustworthiness and credibility with others.

So it’s personal and physical, but still easy to achieve, right? The irony is, most leaders believe they are highly self-aware…and they’re not.

The 90/10 Gap

There’s a large body of research out there that shows many leaders believe they are extraordinarily self-aware. In fact, 90% of leaders rate themselves as highly self-aware. The problem? Typically, only 10% of their people agree with them. I call this the 90/10 Gap.

Self-awareness funny cartoon

With the 90/10 Gap, self-awareness is often a blind spot for leaders instead of the superpower it could be. There can be many reasons for this. I see two common reasons in my coaching practice. First, it’s very difficult to step outside oneself and examine oneself objectively for the sake of deep reflection. Second, it’s also equally as hard for leaders to get the unfiltered and constructive feedback they need to implement effective change behaviors.

That said, all leaders are capable of developing more self-awareness and making it a superpower. Start by building your emotional literacy and getting to know your emotions as physical experiences. The eight steps that follow will guide you.

How Do You Develop Self-Awareness?

Build your emotional literacy.

An Emotional Literate Person ChecklistIf you want to develop self-awareness as a superpower, the single most important thing you can do is increase your emotional vocabulary. There are roughly 34,000 English-language words available to describe our emotions. Yet, we often limit ourselves to about 25 words or fewer to describe how we feel in professional and personal situations.

We not only limit our emotional vocabulary, we ignore our emotions outright. Many leaders believe it’s socially unacceptable to directly express certain emotions because they may appear soft or weak. We lead in a world where stoicism is coveted and vulnerability is risky. As a result, we stay stuck in a limited vocabulary and often mask our real feelings.

If we want self-awareness as a superpower, we need a profound and articulate understanding of ourselves as emotional creatures and how those emotions influence our behavior.

What is emotional literacy? It’s the act of understanding, expressing, and regulating our emotions.

When you increase your emotional vocabulary, you increase your fluency. If we can precisely name our emotions, we can identify subtle nuances and hone into what exactly we are feeling. That can help us take the most effective emotional action.

How Do You Build Emotional Literacy?

Put these three steps into practice.

Step 1. Make a habit of tuning in to how you feel in different situations throughout the day. You might notice that you feel excited when you  make plans to go somewhere with a friend. Or that you feel nervous before an important meeting. You might be relaxed when listening to music. Inspired by an art exhibit. Or pleased when a co-worker acknowledges the accuracy of the report you submitted. Simply notice whatever emotion you feel, then name that emotion in your mind. It only takes a second to do this, but it’s great practice.

Step 2. Rate how strong the feeling is. After you notice and name an emotion, take it a step further. Rate how strongly you feel the emotion on a scale of 1–10, with 1 being the mildest feeling and 10 the most intense.

Step 3. Use the level of intensity to help you identify another word or words to describe what you’re feeling. This adds precision and depth to the emotions you notice.

Move Beyond the Five Core Emotions

It can help you get more specific with your feelings. For example, if you identified frustration as a high intensity feeling, how else you could define this feeling? Are you frustrated or betrayed? If you rated your frustration as low, maybe you’re irritated or perturbed.

For help to expand your emotional vocabulary, check out Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. If you really want to stretch yourself, check out The Untranslatable Emotions You Never Knew You Had.

When we increase our emotional vocabulary and develop emotional fluency, we gain deeper self-understanding. We can then be more truthful with ourselves and others. If we can’t name (if only to ourselves) what we truly feel, then we will never truly understand ourselves or achieve the level of personal insight that transforms self-awareness into a superpower.

Get to Know Your Emotions as a Physical Experience

We communicate physically more than we realize with our body language. Non-verbal communication is how our bodies literally express themselves emotionally. Many leaders spend a lot of time burying, denying, or ignoring their real emotions at work. As a result, they’re unaware of the emotional messages they receive from their bodies. They are also unaware of how those non-verbal messages come across to others.

For example, our faces often express what we don’t say. Our lips may tremble when we’re afraid. Our foreheads wrinkle when we’re concerned or confused. When we feel impatient, we tap our fingers or feet.

When an emotion is triggered in your brain, it sends a series of impulses to different parts of your body. Physically, each emotion contains a program that causes very specific physiological changes that ready our bodies for action.

Our bodies heat up or cool down with emotions!

A recent study by Finnish Scientists mapped the physiological aspects of where and how we feel emotions in the body. The result was a heat map (illustrated in the Emotional Body Map below) that provides insight as to where different emotions manifest within the body. We can sense these changes physically by paying attention to our bodies.

Emotional Intelligence Body Map


It can be a challenge for leaders to understand where emotions are expressed in their body or what they do to communicate these emotions through their body language. If they do notice a physical reaction, it’s often in a drive-by mode as they move on to the next meeting, the next decision, the next crisis.

I’ve worked with leaders who believe they successfully hide their feelings from others. They say things like, “No one really knows I think it’s a stupid meeting” and “Bob doesn’t know how I really feel about him.”

Really? I can almost guarantee they do know. When we’re less than truthful with ourselves and others about our feelings, we indirectly express them through our body language. We can’t help it and other people notice.

When our inside doesn’t match our outside, we impede communication, erode trust, distort reality, and dishonor ourselves.

The alternative is to get to know your emotions as a physical experience. We can practice tuning into the physiological sensations emotions create in our body and become familiar with our physical responses. For example, how does your body feel when you’re sad? Mine feels heavy like it’s weighted. How does your body feel when you’re embarrassed? Mine feels like it’s shrinking and I’m curling inward. Sometimes I describe it by saying “I want to crawl into a wastebasket right now.”

To really connect with your emotions, add these steps.

To get to know how you experience emotions in your body, add the steps below to the three steps outlined earlier in this post.

Step 4. Center yourself. Take a few deep breaths and relax. If you have one, use a meditation or mindfulness practice.

Step 5. Turn towards your emotion. We have a common tendency to move away from difficult emotions when they arise. While this may have once served as an effective defense mechanism, we can help ourselves to move through the emotion more effectively by turning towards it. When we gently open ourselves to whatever is present, we’re able to transition through our emotional landscape with greater understanding and acceptance. The key here is to open from the heart and stay open to whatever arises.

Step 6. Sit with your emotion, without judgment. It’s easy to get caught up in our emotional stories: why we feel an emotion, who’s responsible, and how it could have been avoided. While there’s a time and place for this inquiry, right now we’re focusing on building your physical awareness of the emotion. Rather than say, “I’m angry,” which often leads to, “…because” and justifying, instead simply notice what’s present. Simply witness your anger, grief, or sadness with compassion and curiosity. If judgment intervenes, notice it, and return to witnessing. Stay open.

Step 7. Feel into any physical sensations that are present. When we become more mindful of our emotions, we can open our awareness to our entire body. Start with noticing your breath. Is it shallow and short or long and deep? Where does your breath go? Are you breathing into your stomach? Your chest? Or in your throat?

Then tune in to your emotion.

What do you notice? Where do you notice it? What’s the intensity? Reference the Emotional Body Map. Does your emotion have a color? Does your emotion take up your whole boy or part of it? Even numbness can be observed.

Sensing the way an emotion physically presents itself is the first step toward emotional self-management. Our body signals us to stop and take notice. If we can accurately name our emotions, we can step back, reappraise the situation, and make a wise choice about what we do next. That’s elevating self-awareness to a superpower.

Step 8. Remember that we all have emotions and all emotions are normal. Feelings, thoughts, and sensations come and go. When we pay attention to our emotions mentally and physically, we heighten our awareness of their transitory nature. We become less consumed by them. We start to loosen our grip on the beliefs we hold about them. We come to realize that we can manage our emotions before they manage us. (This exercise was adapted from Mindfulness Exercises.)

Emotions Make Us Human

Contrary to the opinions of many leaders, emotions are not inherently bad. They are part of being human, and we’re all affected by our emotions at the workplace. Therefore, they have a strong impact on the success, collaboration, and engagement of our teams.

Emotions also influence decision-making, creativity, and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Yet many leaders are uncomfortable with the topic of emotions or are unaware of its influence and impact on leadership, organizational culture, and performance. Those leaders are missing out on building the self-awareness that could improve their ability to lead—as well as decision-making, creativity, and relationships.

On the other hand, conscious, courageous leaders are aware of the power that emotions hold. Through increased self-awareness, they develop their emotional literacy and harness that to make it work for them. They feel their emotions physically and therefore are aware of what they communicate non-verbally.

They make self-awareness a leadership superpower.

How do you feel about your level of self-awareness? What can you do to make it your leadership superpower?

If you’d like some help with this, contact me at (425) 488-7747 or send an email. You can schedule a coaching session or a Mindful Power Pause with Horses. There’s nothing quite like spending time with a herd of horses to get honest, unfiltered feedback about how you show up as a leader.  For horses, their language is the language of the body. They are master coaches at helping leaders understand how they communicate non-verbally and how their body language impacts their leadership effectiveness.


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