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Self-awareness in leadership: How it will make you a better boss

September 14, 2022 - 14 min read


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What does it mean to be a self-aware leader?

How to use self-awareness to improve your leadership?

Internal vs. external self-awareness

When internal and external self-awareness aren’t balanced

You need feedback now more than ever

Ask for “what” rather than “why”

Self-awareness lies in unity

Good leaders are hard workers, driven to succeed, and focused on their goals. But sometimes, they have a blind spot that stops them from being even the best leaders possible. 

They lack self-awareness — which is the top skill for a leader to have.

Self-awareness in leadership separates good leaders from excellent leaders. Leadership development relies on self-awareness. But this skill isn’t achieved overnight or without dedication. It might even be uncomfortable for some to become aware of themselves. 

That’s why we’re here. We’ll teach you what a self-aware leader looks like and how self-awareness extends to deeper levels to help you be your best self.


What does it mean to be a self-aware leader?

Let’s start by breaking down what being self-aware means. Self-awareness is about recognizing and understanding our personalities, emotions, and skills. It helps us understand our strengths and weaknesses, which helps us better solve problems. This even improves our interpersonal skills, making us better friends, partners, and teammates. 

Self-aware leaders use this skill to fully understand their work and their team members. 

It’s a powerful leadership technique that ensures team members feel comfortable and safe at work and contribute to the best of their abilities. The importance of self-awareness in leaders lies in how it invites self-exploration. Team members aren’t afraid to be themselves, express new ideas, or ask for help when they’re supported by an in-tune manager.

Emotional intelligence is another key trait of a great leader. It teaches leaders to recognize the emotions they feel and regulate them. Research has found that self-awareness is one of the five components of emotional intelligence. We need self-awareness to strengthen our social skills, work well with others, and learn how to set boundaries, which all help us build our emotional intelligence.

Before we move on, let’s review the four main characteristics of a self-aware leader:

  1. Humility toward themselves and others
  2. A growth mindset that looks to learn new things
  3. Ability to forgive others for mistakes
  4. Strong sense of accountability for themselves

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How to use self-awareness to improve your leadership?

So you want to become a great team leader who inspires others, which means you’re going to use your self-awareness. Many benefits come from using self-awareness as a leader; they don’t all revolve around you. You make better decisions with an open mind that simultaneously acknowledges your biases.

You also build trust across your team members because they see that you’re open to listening.

As a budding successful leader, it’s time for you to self-reflect. Once you’ve understood yourself a bit more, you’re ready to use your self-awareness in the workplace. Here are six ways to do that:

  1. Make decisions with other people in mind, like how it impacts their work-life balance 
  2. Allow yourself and others to express their emotions without judgment
  3. Don’t forget to bring your core values to work and embody them
  4. Take time to understand your team members’ needs and viewpoints
  5. Don’t hesitate to be yourself and express your ideas
  6. Be honest with yourself and others when you’re stressed or upset

Some of these self-awareness tips might seem a bit daunting at first. However, you can seek help from someone who can guide you to create strategies to improve your self-awareness that works for you. At BetterUp, our coaches can provide the guidance you need to understand yourself better and help you become a more self-aware leader at work.


Internal vs. external self-awareness

Everyone has different levels of self-awareness. Some of us may find we’re more in tune with certain parts of ourselves than others. Self-awareness has two categories: internal and external self-awareness.

First, let’s explain internal self-awareness. With this type, we have plenty of self-knowledge. We’re well-informed about our values, passions, goals, and feelings. We can acknowledge our own strengths and weaknesses and make better decisions. Internal self-awareness helps us grow our confidence, and self-esteem and set realistic goals for ourselves.

External self-awareness is about understanding how others view us. People have their own perspectives on us based on our values, personality traits, and goals. External self-awareness helps leaders create a working environment where team members better collaborate with everyone.


These leaders may recognize that they come across as too harsh and demanding. By knowing that, they can make an effort to make others feel comfortable in their presence and soften their tone. 

It might take a self-discovery journey to understand ourselves, but we’ll find who we are. While results may vary, both types of self-awareness teach us different things about ourselves.

When internal and external self-awareness aren’t balanced

We might think we don’t need to worry about internal self-awareness if we have external self-awareness or vice versa. But balance is key. They require different strategies and skills to understand. We should aim to balance our vision of ourselves with how others see us. 

Both types of self-awareness coexist. It’s not like we can have one without the other. Moreover, we shouldn’t neglect one and favor the other because we’d miss out on growing our overall self-awareness.

Strengthening both types is a challenge many leaders encounter when they try to use their self-awareness in the workplace. We must have an open mind as we work on learning about who we are as individuals and listening to how others view us. 


Depending on what we find, we might need to improve our self-management, too. It’s not as if we’ll have all the answers to who we are and how people perceive us one day. Our team members, workplaces, and even careers change. And with that, so does our self-knowledge and ability to understand how others see us.

You need feedback now more than ever

Feedback makes people squirm, but it also makes people excited about the possibility of learning new things. Business leaders love feedback because it helps their businesses learn from any mistakes and grow. It’s something that all leaders need in their lives if they want to strengthen their skills and help their workplace. 

We receive feedback from people in meetings, emails, or self-appraisal comments. But some leaders have blind spots when it comes to hearing feedback. They don’t want to hear that they have weaknesses or made mistakes, but feedback helps us understand the impact of our actions.

It tells us about our communication skills or if we need to improve our organizational skills. Our external self-awareness depends on feedback because we need to hear the viewpoints of others. 

Effective leaders don’t just listen to feedback; they act on it. They use feedback to recognize patterns or certain behaviors they otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. If we want our leadership skills and knowledge to grow, we have to commit to continuously learning. No matter how uncomfortable we might be while listening to feedback, we need it to level up.

Ask for “what” rather than “why”

How we ask questions matters. When we ask questions starting with “Why,” it might now help us. We might never find a solid answer or be satisfied with what that answer brings us. We could experience more rumination and feelings of guilt rather than find concrete answers that help our self-awareness grow. 

“Why” encourages us to jump to conclusions that might not even be true. An example of this could be when we didn’t receive a very positive review of our work. We might think, “Why are my managers unhappy with my work?” and begin to flood our brains with negative self-talk. Self-doubting thoughts consume our brains and ultimately don’t help us with our issues.


However, we have a fix for this. Swap out “Why” with “What” and construct a new sentence around it. Using “What” triggers a reaction and encourages us to act. It creates focused and specific questions that empower us rather than put us down. Our question could instead be, “What can I do to improve my skills and use this as a learning opportunity to produce better work for the future?” 

This question doesn’t tear us down. It formulates a plan of action as we practice self-acceptance and focus on growth. We accept that we made a mistake but don’t let it control us.

Self-awareness lies in unity

Self-awareness in leadership isn’t a one-person show. It happens by looking for collective success and prioritizing the team first. Self-aware leaders aren’t focused on only individual wins; instead, they want their team members to succeed. They do this by continuously assessing themselves for ways to improve.

Successful leaders foster teamwork within their workplaces by listening to feedback from everyone. They ask productive questions with growth in mind and value the opportunity to work collaboratively.

Studies have found that teamwork depends on deep-level factors such as attitudes, values, and self-awareness. It’s not the fancy technology or unlimited budgets that propel teamwork but the people who want to create meaningful, purposeful work. 

The bottom line is that strengthening our self-awareness means we’re committing to a journey full of listening and asking questions to better understand who we are professionally and personally.

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Published September 14, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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