#cipdldshow – How to develop self-awareness for better leadership

Session by Susan Kahn from The School of Life.

Susan says she constantly comes across the burden of self on others and the need for commitment and courage to look to yourself to uncover your strengths and weaknesses so that you can learn how to be your best to have your intended impact on others.  This is especially true for leaders who have a proportionately greater impact through how they behave.

At the School of Life, knowing yourself is at the heart of greater Emotional Intelligence – understand our impact and make us better leaders.

Amongst philosophers, neuroscientists, and others it’s consistently recognised that emotion drives a lot of our actions.  Going to look at unconscious attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.  Look at what they are for us and how they impact us being the leader we want to be.

First – why is it so very difficult to be self aware?

Susan has shown us this image and asked for people’s thoughts on what they’re seeing, how they interpret it.  The older one giving the younger one advice, the older one saying something the younger one doesn’t like.

It doesn’t matter what’s correct or not, what we know is that we elaborate the image from a point of self – from what we project into these two individuals.  What we see in terms of gender, seniority, compassion, tec.  We see in others what we push out from ourselves.  From childhood we carry stories, narrative and ideas that were given to us in childhood e.g. the teacher that told us we were hopeless at maths, very creative, that we’ll go far, that we’ll never amount to anything, that we’re the naughty one or forgetful one.

We carry these narratives with us and especially when we meet people in authority we project those qualities we experiences.  It’s only by recognising that that & appreciate this person in authority is different to those we experienced in childhood and we can choose to behave in a different way.

As a leader we can be seen as capable of things that we don’t see in ourselves.  So projection isn’t always about bad experiences but we need to still be aware of them.

Look again a the image and think – what was it you saw that said something about you?

Susan’s now sharing an iceberg image.  We have operating in us at all times are our conscious and unconscious – all our encounters and experiences.  If we tapped into everything that we were attuned to we couldn’t manage it.  we can’t have everything above the surface.  But we can have things that can emerge into our conscious selves that makes us better leaders, friends and partners to be around.

Aware of unconscious bias?  It’s a good way of exploring some of the notions of unconscious.  Female insurance house leader – she noticed that her top team were 5 men of a certain class, age, colour and she decided that she would change this – recruited a new top team of 5 different people and it was only when one of her colleagues commented that she’d replaced one set of biases with another – 5 women of similar status, class, colour – that she became aware of her own unconscious bias.  We want to be politically correct but in us are unconscious urges that lead us to make assumptions about the young, about the musical, about the creative – be careful because they can lead us to unhelpful decisions.

Freud as the father of the unconscious – he contributed a huge amount to our thinking and is a very helpful theorist because so much is going on under the surface in our workplaces – we come with so much anxiety, narratives and influences from outside of work.  We do ourselves a disservice by assuming we can operate in work with what’s above the surface.  one way of accessing this is by choosing to notice our dreams to see what’s going on under the tip of our iceberg.

Now going to talk about a notion of resistance – taking what’s in the unconscious into the conscious realm.  Think of a time in the last week when you were most worried for another person.  Examples given by the audience e.g. worry for wife who was sleep deprived and needing to look after two young kids, worry for an unwell father.

Is it possible that the worry that you’ve expressed has something to do with you rather than the other person.  For example, if I express concern for a colleague who’s over-worked, what I might be saying is that I couldn’t cope with what they’re doing, I would be feeling like I’m heading for a breakdown.  If a colleague’s not being recognised for his efforts – is that really because I want recognition.  And does thinking about that feel rather uncomfortable?  Does it make YOU feel uncomfortable about being left while sleep-deprived with 2 kids?

Freudian Resistance is that we pull away from something we know in our gut / unconsciously.  We might, for example, when we’re afraid to face something that we go rather manic.  A new leader comes in and wants feedback really quickly, wants things done really quickly.  They’re resisting being able to hold still and embrace leadership and being able to acknowledge that they’re really scared of failing, scared of being seen as not bright enough, not good enough.  We can push against things.

We might have desires or feelings that we’re reluctant to acknowledge.  This is when it’s useful to work with a coach or therapist who can reflect back what they see and the impact it’s having.

One reason we often have this resistance is the inner voices we hear – we all have an inner voice – you’ll never amount to anything, you’re dreadful at figures, you’ll never manage a senior role, someone else is better that you, risks are dangerous, you can’t deal with stress.  Or the converse – you are smart, beautiful, there’s nothing you can do that’s wrong.  Both sets can be equally destructive because they divert us from what’s going on in our encounters.  We need to allow ourselves to recognise where these voices come from – usually our experiences in childhood, or maybe jobs, traumatic experiences in and out of work  and they become self fulfilling prophecies unless we bout out hand up and say – np I’m not going to listen to that anymore.

Exercise to look at inner voices

What do you say to yourself….. when you mess up at work?  Audience sharing their critical voices.  A more helpful inner voice would be Everyone makes mistakes, even the most successful people do.  You can learn from this.  The world hasn’t ended.  These aren’t the automatic voices we hear but we can cultivate them with practice.

Other examples to help explore this : When someone gives you a compliment?  When you’re working on a project, you’re exhausted but it’s nearly there.  When you email a colleague about something exciting and relatively urgent but it’s almost a day and they haven’t replied back?  When someone offers you a role in a risky but exciting new venture?

We can learn to be kind to ourselves, to think about what could actually be true e.g. the person who’s not replied might just be really busy, and to recognise where the shame comes from that causes us to speak to ourselves in this way so that we can choose as an adult whether we still want to believe or listen to that voice of shame.

When we speak to ourselves in this unkind way we feel concerned, worried, anxious, we feel uncared for, unvalued which influences how we behave in the situation and the results we get.

Susan’s now encouraging the audience to think about the inner voice that’s informing their response to these scenarios.  Who or what in your past is directing the way you’re thinking and feeling?

Which inner voice would you like to hear less of?

Which inner voice would you like to hear more of?

Susan highlights that a man has shared an inner voice of imposter syndrome as his example of what he’d like to hear less of, and that, although it’s assumed to be a more female syndrome, men equally experience it.

Watch out for shifting to an inner voice of “you’re perfect” – it’s a huge burden to carry and live up to and then brings as many issues as the unkind words.  Nobody’s perfect and nobody ever will be.

Exercise to raise self awareness.

  1. What do you think people would first notice about you.  Note it down.
  2. Now introduce yourself to someone and each write down the first 3 things you noticed about the other person.
  3. How did your predictions differ?
  4. Experiment again with someone else.

How do people experience you?  Does that match with how you think you’re experienced?  Does it match with how you want to be experienced?  Before we can make these decisions we need to get feedback to raise our awareness and then make choices.

Find a critical friend who you can trust to give this feedback – a friend, a good colleague, a coach, a mentor.  You might want to be clear that you need your critical friend to share their observations with care and support.

Discover your authentic self and get comfortable with that being who you really are.  When we access that, the people who we’d want to be drawn to us are drawn to us.

Exercise in Philosophical Meditation

The School of Life have developed Philosophical Meditation (or what could be described as self-coaching). It’s a 3 stage process.

Take 20 mins a couple of times a week and note down:

  1. What or who is making you anxious / concerned?
  2. What’s upsetting / troubling / bothering me at the moment?
  3. What motivates me at the moment?  What am I really excited about?  What am I looking forward to?

Once we can see what these things are we can look at them from a different, more objective perspective and choose what we want to do about that.


This post has been live blogged from a session at CIPD Learning & Development Show. I’ve shared as I’ve heard it so there may be typos and I won’t have captured the whole thing but the intention is to give you a good sense of what was shared.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *