Frankly, it’s difficult to find leadership approaches that are universally applicable. Or so I thought before I interviewed executive coaches and faculty members Ray Luther and Eric Johnson of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
Luther and Johnson have been advancing the concept of Self-Observant Leadership, which centers around a universal truth:
You can’t effectively lead others until you know how to lead yourself.
That happens through Self-Observant Leadership: when you deeply understand your identity, compare it to your reputation (how others experience you) and then make meaning of the observations and choose to adapt.
As Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz describes it, it’s the ability to simultaneously stand on the balcony and observe yourself on the dance floor.
It’s what separates great leaders from the mediocre, and it’s the rare universal truth in leadership development because it starts with who you are/want to be.
While we’re speaking truth, few leaders are skilled at Self-Observant Leadership because it’s oh-so-painful to practice.
I remember receiving 360-degree feedback; ignoring all the good and beating myself up over corrective feedback. Learning that how you’re perceived doesn’t always match up with the identity you want is truly painful.
But as Luther and Johnson put it:
“The greatest gift you can give yourself is honesty”.
Which makes self-observable moments the biggest present under the tree.
Interestingly, this isn’t authentic leadership we’re talking about here as commonly discussed, i.e. understanding and remaining true to yourself as you are today. This is a refined definition of authenticity–understanding who you are and how you’re perceived, then making behavioral changes to become the leader you want to be, even if it means operating outside the identity you’re comfortable with.
It’s authenticity via self-awareness and adjustment. And it requires focused attention to your internal (our identity) and external (our reputation) channels of feedback.
Executive coach Johnson cited the example of a high-level client to illustrate. The coachee realized (through guided self-observation) that he needed to learn to give people difficult feedback if he wanted to progress up the ranks. Doing so didn’t represent his authentic-self today, but to be the leader he wanted to become, he had to adapt.
That said, Self-Observational Leadership is also about self-congruence. Luther described another coaching client who was already an effective leader but was perceived as a hard-nosed person, which couldn’t have been farther from how he wanted to be perceived. His internal and external feedback mechanisms were providing conflicting data. He had to make behavioral adjustments too, but in this case to align with how he wanted to be known.
So with all this in mind, how do you deliberately practice Self-Observant Leadership? Luther and Johnson shared these 6 steps:
1. Live your values.
This starts with taking time to truly know your values–which Johnson says surprisingly few people really know. Your identity is grounded in your values, and in your purpose, which brings us to the next item.
2. Move towards purpose.
Understanding your Profound Why (Why are you working so hard? For what higher order reason?) is the other half of your identity. With a clear understanding of values and purpose in tow, you then compare your identity to how you’re perceived, which happens in the next step.
Pay attention to feedback, both internal and external, to learn how you’re perceived and be ready to accept some things you don’t want to hear.
4. Be present.
Part of learning is to always be present in the moment, so you can be aware of how you’re moving on the dance floor and are better able to view yourself from the balcony. Which leads to step 5.
This separates the good from the great. Now you must reflect on the gap between your desired identity and how you’re perceived. Journaling is a powerful tool here–taking 5 minutes in the beginning of the day to reflect on the values and purpose you want to exemplify, then reviewing it for 5 minutes at the end of the day to see how you did.
Self-Observant Leadership culminates in action (self-adjustment). Without it you’re passively observing, and passing-by the opportunity to be a significantly better leader.
No matter what leadership philosophy you subscribe too, it’s hard to argue with the need for self-observance–especially given today’s rightfully sensitive workplace.
I should point out that there are those that can game the system for a while–acting exactly as the system needs them too without consideration to their authentic selves, all in the effort to rise up the ladder.
But it always catches up with them in the end. At some point, raw performance intersects with potential.
And those with the greatest potential for advancement see the potential in being honest with themselves.