Self-Awareness: The Pivot Point for Success in Leading Yourself and Others to Change

 As a leader, there are hundreds of ‘moments of truth’ every day. When assembled over time, these become the nature of one’s leadership and how others see you as a person. Changing how we act in these seminal moments is critical! Changing how we approach the events that challenge us is an even more difficult proposition. One study published in the U.S. News and World Report found that 95% of who we are is a series of subconscious programmes that have become automatic. In his book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One, Dr. Joe Dispenza describes why changing is so hard: ‘When the 5% that is conscious is going against the 95% that is running subconscious automatic programmes, the 95% is so reflexive that it only takes one stray thought or a single stimulus from the environment to turn on the automatic programme again.’ Continuing he says: ‘In effect, you have to de-programme, your old thinking and feeling patterns and then re-programme, your brain with new patterns of thinking and feeling, based on who you want to be instead.’

Even more important is the antecedent of having the self-awareness to know that you are in one of these opportunities to ‘show-up’ differently. Most of the time we see leaders spending mental energy gauging a situation based on its content or other’s points of view. They often do not register that they are getting frustrated or defensive. Before they know it, they are in an argument or have said something that they regret. It is difficult to be self-aware enough to know that danger is really at the gate. Our reactivity can rear its ugly head and draw us inextricably into a comfortable pattern of reacting using defensive mechanisms. When this happens, our best intentions of leading effectively are tossed out the window.

The other day, Tony C. Daloisio was in a discussion with a family member about plans for the weekend. Before he knew it, he was in an argument about how to plan the important weekend. Tony was hoping to have more free time to relax but they had every waking minute scheduled. He did not have enough self-awareness to notice that he got activated and before he knew it, was reacting out of his usual scripts.

The critical moment of truth for leaders is to be self-aware enough to know when they are activated. When this happens, most of us fall back to automatic scripts that are reactive and ineffective. When we are self-aware, we are better suited to proactively behave in a way consistent with our values and effective leadership behaviours.

A phrase that many of us learned at an early age in response to fire situations is ‘stop, drop, and crawl.’ This might be a metaphor for leaders when they feel the heat of the situation rising. When we are in any moment of truth that causes us to default to unhealthy automatic scripts, we need to stop and notice our feelings. Next, drop into your wise self to make a more effective response to the situation. Then crawl, meaning slow down, and be aware of what is happening and what is needed to make a more value-based response. In this way, leaders can overcome past programmes that don’t always create great outputs. In a great TEDx talk by Lynn Carnes, she describes a similar process that she calls ‘assuming positive intent.’ She tells leaders to: 

  1. Remember you have a choice — you don’t have to react, instead you can respond;
  2. Take a breath / pause
  3. Write a better story — one that has you acting in a way that is healthy and productive.

Self-awareness is the key to success in the moments of truth. Without it, we can’t use values that bring forth our best leadership self. William James, an American psychologist, said: ‘Genius means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an un-habitual way.’ Learn to become self-aware and you’ll become a leader who people will want to follow.


Kendall Lyman and Tony C. Daloisio are the authors of the new book Change the Way You Change! 5 Roles of Leaders Who Accelerate Business Performance. As members of the Duke Corporate Education Faculty Network, they help leaders around the world navigate change, improve employee engagement, transform culture, and increase leadership capability.