Leading self: The value of self-awareness in leadership (YEL2022)

Date:  18 October 2022

Leading self: The value of self-awareness in leadership (YEL2022)

Authors: Dr Mega Febrianora (Indonesia), Dr James Deiparine (Philippines), Dr Turki Abdullah AlMogbel (Saudi Arabia), Ms Theresia Mohere (Tanzania), Dr Yosra Al Salami (UAE).

Reviewers (YEL Alumni): J. Antônio Cirino (Brazil), Dr Samar Almuntaser (Dubai).


The world is rapidly changing due to technology advancement and the ever-increasing connectivity of the population. For an organization to survive and even thrive, the business world demands that they move faster than ever to keep up. The pursuit of excellence for any organization requires a range of skills and efforts at all levels including strong leadership. Many studies on leadership have highlighted different qualities critical to effective leadership but of recent, much emphasis has been placed on self-awareness. Self-awareness in leadership has been described as understanding of how your personality traits, habits and abilities affect your interactions with the people around you, particularly in the workplace.1

Showry, et al, cited Stanford in their rating of soft skill like self-awareness as one of the pillars of managerial capabilities that predicts managerial effectiveness and leadership success.2 It suggests that intelligence and technical skills are far less important to leadership success than self-awareness. To lead effectively, leaders must consciously put efforts to accurately understand their own leadership capabilities through self-evaluation and evaluation from other sources which will help them to identify their strengths and weaknesses and subsequently set self-improvement goals for organizational and professional gain.

The healthcare industry is no different, success is largely dependent on the performance of its leaders at all levels. Leadership self-awareness is vital to navigate the complexities of the healthcare systems and in building and leading successful teams. To lead others, one requires to first lead self. However, developing such trait is harder than it seems, and Caldwell posits that it is a continuous and conscious effort, that a leader must willingly develop.3 This takes a lot of mental and emotional fortitude. However, self-awareness enables leaders to identify and manage their emotions thus easily influencing other’s. This skill is proving to be an invaluable asset for a leader to become more effective, influence follower performance and lead an organization to success.

Self-awareness and leadership effectiveness

The concept of self-awareness is never completely discussed without its association with leadership effectiveness. The more self-aware the leader is, the more likely they are to accurately evaluate their own leadership capabilities and set realistic self-improvement goals which in return, enhances professional and organizational performance. This continuous effort to self-awareness and actively working to improve, creates a level of understanding, wisdom and trustworthiness which equips leaders with critical leadership skills and attributes that influence and stirs organizations in the right direction.4

However, leader’s capabilities associated with their self-awareness perceptions lies not only in their ability to solve problems but to continually learn. Accurate self-evaluation is key for continuous learning. Tekleab et al., argues that leaders who overestimate their leadership capabilities tend to misjudge their strength and weakness hence, they may limit their own effectiveness by failing to set self-improvement goals, on the other hand, leaders who underestimate their leadership capabilities, may accurately diagnose their strengths and weaknesses but may take relatively few actions to improve their performance due to low self-efficacy regarding their leadership capabilities.5 Hence, accurate self-evaluation is critical, but this can be largely achieved through feedback from other sources as well.

The major drawback with ratings from other sources especially from subordinates is that it becomes more inaccurate as one goes up the corporate ladder especially in an industry where a hierarchical and pyramidal leadership dominates. The higher your position, the less feedback you receive, as people down the line will be less comfortable in giving constructive criticisms. Dr James Deiparine proprietor and director of a hospital in a rural area of the Philippines and a member of the IHF’s Young Executive Leaders (YEL) programme  shared a similar frustration. Although he recognizes the importance of feedback, he fell into the ‘CEO’s Disease’, as coined by psychologist Tasha Eurich.6 The more power he wields as a leader, the less candid feedback he receives from his subordinates for fear that it might hurt their careers. In smaller organizations like his, the lack of feedback is often proportionated with more self-ratings. However, this too pose a problem as self-ratings tends to suffer from leniency and social desirability biases and skews towards being inflated.7 There is always that propensity to be inaccurate self-raters.

However, pursuit for self-awareness should be encouraged and continuous for leaders. Leaders can use different feedback mechanisms to accurately gauge their behavior and set realist self-improvement goals. A survey by the Stanford Business School Advisory Council, ranked self-awareness as the most important trait leaders must have.8 Such trainable trait enables a leader to reflect on their actions and become more authentic and credible especially to their followers. Several studies suggests that managers with high levels of self-awareness tend to have better performance outcomes than those with lower levels of self-awareness.9,10,11 The continuous effort to self-awareness and improvement tremendously enhances leadership performance and effectiveness.

Leadership self-awareness and follower performance

Leadership performance can only do so much for an organization’s success. Follower performance takes up the other half of the pie. The level of performance of employees in the workplace is directly impacted by the level of self-awareness of the leader. People look up to leaders who are confident, aware of their limitations, and weigh their decisions based on the perceived needs of their organization. It appears to be an important factor in an organization’s success. Self-aware managers and leaders can easily see their emotions and how they affect their followers. Furthermore, they use their judgment effectively and can certainly understand their subordinates.

The foundation of self-awareness is one of self-recognition; the ability to recognize that one’s own emotions will either constrain or empower one’s own emotional response but also the emotional responses of others .12 The ability to maintain a level of awareness is key, particularly with leader-follower relationships and team-related issues as it enables the leader and follower to identify, resolve and manage emotional issues earlier so that they do not become protracted or detracted from the performance objectives of the organization.13 Self-aware individuals especially leaders have the capacity to influence, change and alter their own behavior and the behavior of their followers.14

Dr Turki Abdullah AlMogbel, Hospital Director of King Fahd Specialist Hospital in Buraydah, Saudi Arabia, and a YEL member, banked on his self-awareness skills to lead his facility through the COVID-19 pandemic. The knowledge of his own fears and anxieties led him to recognize that his team might very well share the same.  Likewise, he was only able to recognize their strengths and capabilities after carefully examining his own. He helped established the Hospital’s Command and Control center with core members from all major domains and created a positive, safe, and non-judgmental work environment where healthcare workers may express their point of views, apprehensions, and suggestions without fear of repercussions. He reckoned that visible decisiveness thru self-awareness does not only build the organization’s confidence in leaders but also motivates its network of followers in sustaining their search for solutions to the challenges that the organization faces.

Creating a followership by emotional ties tends to be stronger. But this requires a leader with a big deal of authenticity. Studer describes this authenticity as what makes the staff to comply with and support the leader’s decisions. Even if the decisions are difficult for the team, they still follow as they believe in the leader’s values and direction. Self-awareness is a key component of authenticity. Only when leadership performance and follower performance are in synch with each other, an organization’s success becomes more palatable.

Leadership self-awareness and organization’s performance

Different studies and reviews have shown that leadership self-awareness can benefit organizations in many ways including building a culture of trust and honesty which leads to higher engagement among employees.  Leaders who are more self-aware of their own leadership in terms of accurate self-evaluation when compared with ratings from other sources, can recognize their strengths, weaknesses, and hidden biases. Being aware of the shortcomings and actively working to improve, enable leaders to earn the trust of their team members and improve their credibility. Employees are more likely to put their trust in leaders who hold themselves accountable and are honest about their leadership styles and shortcomings. Such environment will encourage and foster trust not only towards leaders but also to the organization and what it stands for. It will motivate employee engagement in different organizational activities and improve performance.

Self-aware leaders also promote advancement in learning and development. Accuracy of leader’s views of their own leadership may accurately diagnose their strength and weakness which enable them to set realistic self-improvement goals, thus motivating improvement and support effectiveness while creating an environment that promotes learning and encourages personal and professional growth for their followers. Ms Theresia Mohere, a Program Manager at Aga Khan Health Service, Tanzania (AKHS,T) who is also a master trainer of Patient Centered Care, and a YEL member shared during leadership self-awareness discussions that through her trainings, she noted that many leaders at different levels, including their subordinates, were experiencing challenges on the ground and when asked to brainstorm on possible solutions – they came up with great ideas, however, these ideas were either never communicated to their line managers or if communicated, they were never followed up for action. She added that this was mainly because of the workplace culture of not speaking up and secondly, because of lack of self-awareness of once abilities to create solutions and enact change to improve performance. This feedback was shared with the senior leadership team at AKHS,T and several initiatives were implemented to encourage the culture of speaking up at all levels. Different platforms were created to encourage and promote idea sharing and implementation of some of the best ideas. As a result, more people are speaking up and offer solution which has ultimately improved timely communication of issues and enhanced organization’s performance.

Another benefit of self-awareness in leadership is improved decision-making. Self-awareness help leaders to be aware of their own goals and how they can align their personal goals with the company’s objectives, for both professional and organizational gains. The alignment of personal and professional goals with the company’s objectives plays a key role to making sound decisions for leaders. Self-awareness builds discipline and fosters growth that helps leaders to use their strengths to guide teams to the best possible outcomes. Additionally, when leaders are aware of their goals and how they aligned with the company’s objectives, they are motivated to communicate the company’s objectives to their teams and influence and support them to work towards achieving those


Dr Yosra Al Salami, Assistant Director for Medical Affairs at Emirates Health Services, Dibba-Fujairah Hospital, and a YEL member, conducted a survey to healthcare leaders and workers at different levels. A total of 510 respondents of varied healthcare-related professions, majority of whom are aged 35-45, were asked as to their level of agreement with the importance self-awareness when paired with leadership effectiveness, follower performance or organizational success. Responses were scaled to strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree and strongly disagree. Although a majority is in agreement, only one-third strongly agrees with the importance of self-awareness in all of the three pairings. Surprisingly, another third is either neutral, or in disagreement with the concept.

Even with the immense literature citing the importance of self-awareness, there is still a need to translate its importance and use to the actual workplace especially among young leaders. Knowing the importance of self-awareness with leadership effectiveness, follower performance and organizational success is one thing. To know how self-aware you are of your purpose, vision and values is another. A YEL masterclass conducted by CMA in partnership with Wittkieffer last July 2022 focused on enhancing self-awareness. It provided the young leaders a realization that leading self is a conscious effort and that there are means and tools to enhance and validate one’s level of self-awareness.

Organizations should encourage and promote self-awareness by investing in different feedback mechanisms for accurate self-evaluation and evaluation from other source. This will help both leaders and followers to set realistic self-improvement which in turn, will enhance professional and organizational performance.

Much has been said regarding how a leader should lead the organization. But for any leader to do so effectively, one must start first in knowing how to lead self.


  1. Indeed Editorial Team 2020, ‘How to Improve Self-Awareness in Leadership in 7 Steps’ accessed 20 August 2022 <https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/self-awareness-in-leadership>
  2. Showry, S., Manasa, K.V.L. (2014). Self-awareness – Key to effective leadership. IUP Journal of Soft Skills , 8(1), 15-26.
  3. Caldwell, Cam & Hayes, Linda. (2016). Self-efficacy and self-awareness: moral insights to increased leader effectiveness. Journal of Management Development. 35. 1163-1173. 10.1108/JMD-01-2016-0011.
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  6. Eurich, T. (2017). Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps US Succeed at Work in Life. Currency
  7. Podsakoff, P.M., & Organ, D.W. (1986). Self-reports in organizational research: Problems and Prospects. Journal of Management, 12(4), 531-544.
  8. Toegel, G., Barsoux, J.L. (2012). How to become a better leader. MIT Sloan Management Review, 53(3), 51-60.
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  12. Goleman, D. (2002). Leadership that Gets Results. Harvard Business Review.
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  14. Eisenberg, N. & Fabes, R.A. (1992). Emotion, regulation and the development of social competence. In: M. Clark (ed). Review of personality and social psychology: emotion and social behaviour. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publication, 14, 119-150.

Written by:

Katherine Bennett

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