“Most people know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at—and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”
— Peter F. Drucker

Are you depriving yourself of the full benefit of your strengths as a leader? If you are not fully self aware, you probably are missing out. Self-awareness is vital to the effectiveness of leaders. The preceding quote from a 1999 Harvard Business Review article by Peter Drucker goes to the heart of why this is true.

Self-awareness brings your strengths to the forefront. It drives you to focus on what you do best and to develop those strengths even more. This gives leaders more energy and keeps them motivated. The greatest impact you as a leader can have on a group is to be energized and self-motivated, because the motivation of a team is directly related to the motivation and energy levels of the team leader.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your strengths, moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others. When you know this, you are better able to self regulate, build trust, be more open to change and more comfortable with ambiguity. I have found that this is especially important for physician leaders, who are often thrust into leadership roles after long careers in which the bulk of their work had required them to use only their clinical and technical skills.

Daniel Goleman, PhD, the best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence and co-author of Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, popularized the term, “emotional intelligence,” or EQ, which has been defined as a person’s self-awareness, self-confidence, self-control, commitment and integrity, and a person’s ability to communicate, influence, initiate change and accept change. Goleman states that self-awareness is the keystone of EQ.

I believe self-awareness naturally leads into the need for awareness of others. Once you have a true understanding of what you do well, how you think and process information, how you best make decisions, and how you communicate, you can then focus on the different ways that others on the team communicate, think and process information, and what they do well. Appreciating these differences among your team members is key to successful communication and team building, and getting the work done right by the right people.

So how do you gain self-awareness? Many believe that self-awareness is only gained through introspection—taking a close look at oneself, but this is only half of the process. While making an honest internal appraisal of your strengths, how you work and your values is important, feedback analysis on these topics is also critical, whether it is done internally or by a third party.

Several studies have shown that the 360-degree feedback process—through which the people around a leader evaluate his or her performance—is effective in changing the self-perceptions of leaders. This, in turn, causes them to reevaluate their self-perceptions, thereby improving their self-awareness.

Such feedback can bring out “blind spots” in self-awareness that may erode leadership effectiveness. For example, last month I wrote about naysayers. If everyone but you thinks you are a naysayer, this may be a blind spot. Having our blind spots pointed out to us is a gift, and feedback is a gift, because we can’t succeed without it.

To continuously improve self-awareness for themselves and others in their organizations, leaders need to foster a culture of feedback throughout the team. As a leader you need to encourage feedback at all times. One method for meetings is to build a feedback portion into the end of the session. Have the participants discuss what did work and what didn’t, and make it a policy that nobody leaves the meeting until everyone provides feedback.

However, watch out how you analyze feedback. Many leaders, when analyzing feedback about their performance, often focus on the negative aspects, which means weaknesses. But many experts, including Drucker, believe that working on weaknesses is a waste of valuable time and effort. In the world of long hours, shift work, the demands of family and work, we don’t have any spare time. What we need is energy, and focusing on improving our weaknesses just saps that energy.

Peter Drucker explains the concept later in this same Harvard Business Review article: “One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competency. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”

He urges leaders to, “Put yourself where your strengths can produce results.”

One method that Drucker uses is that every time he is making a key business decision he writes down what he believes will be the result, and then nine to 12 months later he compares the actual results with his expectations. He has been doing this for decades and states that he is always surprised at the outcome.

Leaders also have a responsibility to communicate clearly to others around them what their strengths, values and modes of work are, and they need to use their own sense of self-awareness to develop their own awareness of those around them. Drucker makes the point that very few people work by themselves, and managing themselves requires taking responsibility for relationships. There are two parts to this. The leader first has to accept that other people are as much individuals as they are, which requires the leader’s demonstrated acknowledge-ment that those individuals also have their own strengths, their own ways of getting things done, and their own values. To have an effective team, leaders then have to take the second step, which is learning the strengths, the performance modes, and the values of their co-workers.

For physician leaders and especially those recently transitioned from clinical practice, this relationship process may be the most difficult. Many physicians are very technical and clinically minded, and like engineers and other technical professionals, many assert that, “I’m just not a people person,” and so they write that piece off. However, today’s dynamic, team-oriented healthcare environment that demands quality will not let them do that. If they do, they will certainly fail as leaders.

Being a “people person” can be as simple as saying “please” and “thank you” and “hello” and knowing a person’s name. It is an easy thing to change. Even though you may be brilliant, you still need cooperation from people to be a successful leader.

Values are also an important part of leadership. Most people believe they know what their values are, but few have truly articulated their values to themselves. These values not only include what people commonly consider values, such as integrity, but also other traits, such as being adventurous or a risk-taker. It is important to evaluate your values in the context of how they fit with the work you do, and how you do it.

Once feedback and introspection have increased your self-awareness, and you are aware of your values, your strengths and how you work, you then need to strive to further develop your strengths to make you a star performer as a leader. The hallmarks of self-awareness are often self-confidence, realistic self-assessment and often a self-deprecating sense of humor. It is often contagious.

Personality is a given, and you’re not going to change it. However, self-awareness works with your personality to allow you to develop your strengths so that you can lead from them. Peter Ducker stated it well in the aforementioned article, “Do not try to change yourself—you are unlikely to succeed. Work to improve the way you perform.”