You are here How Leaders Can Gain Self-Awareness—And Why You Need It

Kevin McHugh, President, JKM Management Development

You are here How Leaders Can Gain Self-Awareness—And Why You Need It

Despite the increased awareness dedicated to emotional intelligence in leadership, many toxic behaviors continue to exist everywhere from the warehouse to the conference room. Why haven’t we seen a big change in the way executives relate to one another? Despite the many books—including Travis Bradberry’s eye-opening Emotional Intelligence 2.0, which found that emotional IQ plummets when it reaches the C-suite—and despite the assessments and seminars, leaders still lean toward old habits. In board rooms across America, leaders openly berate, embarrass and publicly criticize subordinates. In toxic work cultures, passive aggressiveness is the rule, not the exception.

There are two reasons for this.

  •  Leaders simply don’t have sufficient desire to be better—i.e., they don’t care. This is especially true if the business is doing well. The attitude is, if business is good, why should I care? If business is booming, deadlines are met, and stock value is going up, why go through the exercise of coming face-to-face with your flaws, defects of character, pride, ego, distrust and fear—being vulnerable? Why dig deeper when all is well on the surface? You dig because you can always up your leadership game and because it will make a difference in how you engage with your team, your vendors and clients.
  • Leaders don’t have the self-awareness to recognize the problem. All models of emotional intelligence start with a foundation of self-awareness. Most coaching time should be spent on self-awareness because that is where the gold is still to be found.

How to Gain Self-Awareness

 There are two effective ways to gain self-awareness:

  • Listen to Your Stories. Force some quiet time every day where your cell phones go off completely and your door is shut for 10 minutes. I have clients who break out in a cold sweat at the thought, but I urge you to try it. Breathe deeply and slowly, and see what surfaces. Let the thoughts roll through your brain like a digital ticker tape. Notice what is happening and see if you can articulate how that experience feels. Pay special attention to anything that feels difficult or sparks negative emotions, as these feelings point to something larger underneath. When you take the time to look below the surface, you can see a glimpse of the source.
  • Listen to Stories of Others. Pick one person who you trust to tell you the complete truth about how you look to them. Ask them to find something they believe you do that causes others to disconnect from you – to avoid you, to shut down around you, to be less the honest. This is tough stuff. It requires both courage to take this feedback and a desire to hear it. If you are doing something like this now, keep at it - do it more.  

Following these steps will put you well on your way to better self-awareness—not only as a leader, but also as a person. And that is good for everyone.

About the Author

Kevin McHugh is the president of JKM Management Development, a management consulting firm specializing in increasing organizational performance and coaching business leaders to develop emotional awareness, conflict resolution capabilities, and maximize executive effectiveness. He is author of The Honest Executive. Learn more at