The importance of self-awareness in becoming better leaders (YEL2023)

Date:  11 October 2023


Self-awareness plays a pivotal role in effective leadership, serving as a fundamental building block for both personal and professional development (Showry & Manasa, 2014) since it entails the capacity to impartially acknowledge and comprehend one’s own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and values. Self-awareness is a common trait among exceptional leaders with various leadership styles: being better equipped to make informed decisions, taking responsibility for their actions, and inspiring trust and respect among their teams. By continuously seeking feedback and reflecting on their performance, these leaders can identify areas for improvement, proactively develop their skills, have corrective measures for their deficiencies, and skillfully navigate intricate interpersonal relationships with empathy and consideration.

The IHF’s Young Executives Leaders programme enables young leaders from around the world to exchange experiences and ideas, discuss challenges frequently faced in our roles and prevailing circumstances, and collaborate on a deliverable despite coming from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds.

This article explores the challenges encountered by young healthcare leaders globally, examines how self-awareness is relevant in effectively tackling these predicaments and proposes actionable strategies for leaders to enhance their leadership capabilities to establish a successful organization.

Leadership challenges of the authors

Many research papers have explored and discussed the effects of self-awareness on leadership outcomes (Tekleab et al., 2008; Bratton et al., 2011). A widely held viewpoint is that effective leadership appears when individuals recognize significant personal experiences in their lives, comprehend the underlying motivations, adapt by reconsidering their perspectives, adjust their actions, and transform their behaviours accordingly (Showry & Manasa, 2014).

Dr Ariane Capalla (Philippines) encountered the difficulty of striking a balance between assertiveness and flexibility in making decisions without causing unnecessary conflicts among the employees. She believes developing quality, effective, and responsible leadership, which involves rational decision-making, effective planning and implementation, building rapport and trust, and the ability to motivate and inspire people to achieve unified goals, are critical elements of successful management.

Dr Catherine Mackenzie (Kenya) experienced challenges of diversity in the workplace. The team members, each with different backgrounds and experiences, would often have different ways of approaching the same scenario, thus failing to reach a consensus. Electing a project committee helped, as this allowed each opinion to be heard by the committee members. Once a majority has been established, a final and best decision will be made.

Ms Halina Palacios (Northern Mariana Islands, USA) perceives that every working environment is influenced by its fair share of internal and external politics and that leaders must ensure that internal politics are filtered and sorted beneficially. If there are committee chair elections or opportunities for new projects, a leader must ensure information is clearly disseminated to provide equal growth opportunities for the team. External politics are often more difficult to filter since not all information is valid due to different sources and the strong influence of public opinion. Handling these properly and timely may prevent feelings of distrust, anxiety, and anger, thus demanding a focus on communication and transparency that will encourage teams to follow the desired direction, even when there isn’t a clear answer to every question.

Mr João Tiago Goldschmidt de Oliveira (Portugal) acknowledges the encounters that helped him realize the importance of leaders being able to communicate, influence others, and stand out for positive reasons. These qualities extend from professional environments to social and personal ones, positively impacting every relationship.

Ms Lorena Kujawa de la Cruz (Germany) experienced building trust and fostering effective communication with senior leaders as a challenging task, especially when she was given the responsibility as an Executive Assistant of the Chief of Nursing and Chief of Human Resources Officer at a relatively young age. As a young leader, it takes time, effort, accountability, emotional intelligence, and empathy to convince senior leaders of their competencies.

Mr Phat Nguyen (Vietnam) believes that it is challenging for a young leader to cultivate an organizational culture that embraces change and innovation. A good leader understands the value of attracting and retaining talented individuals who align with the overall goals, rather than trying micromanagement and manipulation tactics. The ability to socialize and build up networks and connections to access resources and opportunities for growth is also a defining requirement for a young leader to thrive. Especially in Asia, work dynamics are often centred around relationship-building and maintaining face, thereby influencing how tasks are achieved.


Self-awareness plays a very important role in organizational management since institutions are composed of unique people with different environmental upbringings that influence their characters; hence, knowing oneself enables one to better deal with different people and circumstances. Understanding different realities and predicting outcomes guide a leader to better relate, enhancing individual and general motivation to achieve a common goal, since this implies recognizing the value of each individual to the organization and giving corresponding responsibilities and rewards to acknowledge accomplishments.

The common benefits of self-awareness are (Sutton, 2016; London et al., 2022):

  • greater ability to regulate emotions, decrease stress, and increase happiness;
  • more self-confidence;
  • freedom from one’s assumptions and biases leads to better decision-making;
  • understanding things from multiple perspectives;
  • power to influence outcomes;
  • better communication and relationships.

A large-scale research found that self-awareness is a quality that most leaders consider themselves to have, but it was estimated that only 10 to 15% do (Eurich, 2018). In accordance, the authors conducted a short survey among the YEL 2023 cohort (45 participants) to have a perception of how self-aware the participants consider themselves to be. The majority of participants believe they are strongly self-aware with more than 70% of the answers ranging from 7 to 10 (Figure 1), on a scale from 1 (not self-aware at all) to 10 (completely self-aware).

Figure 1: Current self-awareness level reported by YEL 2023 participants

YEL 2023 participants were asked about individual awareness in specific areas using a scale from 1 (not aware) to 5 (fully aware). Most respondents feel aware of values, strengths, and emotional triggers. However, weaknesses are more neglected (score 2 in red), as well as the effects of actions on others (score 3 in gray) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Self-awareness in specific areas reported by YEL 2023 participants

The differences between the participants’ leadership characteristics and the idealized concept of an exemplary leader were examined. The respondents answered what qualities, skills, or traits best describe themselves as leaders and enumerated the top three qualities of an “ideal leader”. Their answers were then arranged in the categories found in Figure 3. Most YEL 2023 participants identify as having integrity and good communication skills. In comparison, the majority of the results showed that an ideal leader must inspire and relate to others (Figure 3).


Figure 3: Categorized answers from YEL 2023 participants about the qualities, skills, or traits that best describe themselves as a leader in comparison to those of an ideal leader

Recommended strategies for development of self-awareness

A leader who sincerely wants to improve their organization should understand not only their strengths but also their weaknesses and limitations, how they collect and take action on feedback, how they control difficult circumstances, and how they are perceived by and interact with others (Padilla, 2012). Throughout the path of building self-awareness, authenticity is crucial both to set an example and to allow honest communication, simultaneously promoting sharing and listening about what truly goes in the minds and hearts of employees. Lack of authenticity negatively impacts leadership effectiveness (Waldman & Galvin, 2008) hence, perspective-taking is key to communicating and motivating more effectively (Galinsky & Schweitzer, 2016).

A mindful leader sets an objective with good communication, prioritization, and selection of appropriate strategies thus, reducing stress and conflicts. Self-development should be a continuous process and be adaptable to different situations. To become a better leader, it is crucial to understand one’s impact on their personnel and environment. Encourage others to grow as better leaders themselves so there is a continuous development of improvement in the organization.

Numerous studies have explored strategies for enhancing self-awareness. Figure 4 lists some of the notable and practical methods:

Figure 4: Recommended strategies for enhancing self-awareness

The survey with YEL 2023 participants revealed that the suggested strategies, outlined in scholarly research, are not very common within the cohort. More than 65% of the respondents currently don’t keep a journal; only 34% meditate or practice mindfulness more than a few times a week; no more than 27% read several fictional books per year, and more than 45% don’t read fiction at all (Figure 5). Regarding techniques used for feedback, the majority use informal discussions (73%), followed by organizational feedback (46%), and coaching (39%) (Figure 6).

These results show how there is a margin to adopt practices that are proven to improve self-awareness and eventually contribute to becoming a better leader.

Figure 5: Practices used by YEL 2023 participants that lead to self-awareness

Figure 6: Strategies used by YEL 2023 participants for seeking feedback


Self-awareness of one’s purpose, vision, and character is fundamental to becoming a better leader. Leaders can inspire and guide their organizations toward success by understanding their intentions, developing a compelling foresight, and living by core values. In addition, emotional intelligence and empathy enable leaders to connect with their teams on a deeper level, fostering a positive work environment. Leadership must be applied and practiced regardless of age, background, beliefs, color, culture, gender, race, and religion. Continuous growth and learning ensure that leaders remain adaptable and encourage the growth of their employees. By cultivating self-awareness, leaders can better navigate challenges, inspire their teams, and create a lasting impact on their organizations. After all, a good leader should be aware that they merely reflect the collaborative effort and accomplishment of each individual within the organization.


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Coron District Hospital, Philippines

Dr Ariane Capalla

Chief of Hospital
Young Executive Leaders 2023

IHF Member: Philippine Hospital Association, Philippines. Supervises overall hospital operations and coordinates with other agencies for hospital needs in a geographically-isolated and disadvantaged area.

Avenue Healthcare, Kenya

Dr Catherine Mackenzie

General Manager Clinics
Young Executive Leaders 2023

Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation, Northern Mariana Islands

Halina Palacios

Chief of Clinic Services
Young Executive Leaders 2023

IHF Member: Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation, Northern Mariana Islands. Chief of Clinic Services overseeing all outpatient clinic services for Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.

Luz Saúde, Portugal

João Tiago Goldschmidt de Oliveira

Business Process Manager
Young Executive Leaders 2023

IHF Member: Portuguese Association of Private Hospitals (APHP), Portugal. Nurse with a degree in hospital administration, working to improve quality and performance.

University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany

Lorena Kujawa de la Cruz

Personal Executive Assistant of the Executive Member “Chief of Nursing and Chief of Human Resources Officer”
Young Executive Leaders 2023

IHF Member: German Hospital Federation (DKGEV), Germany. Interface to the Executive Board, working on strategic and HR issues, including legal requirements.

Becamex International Hospital, Vietnam

Tien Phat Nguyen

Deputy Head of Operations
Young Executive Leaders 2023

IHF Member: Becamex International Hospital, Vietnam. General operations of a 300-bed hospital, passionate to “do more with less” for the patient via analytics and data.

Reviewers: Rachael Spooner (YEL 2021, USA),  Miyele Kaliwanda (YEL 2022, Zambia), Dr Yosra Rashed Alsalami (YEL 2022, United Arab Emirates)

Written by:

Karen Cabuyao

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