How often have you heard inadequate leaders, when things go wrong, blame their staff, their customers, their competitors or the government, or a combination of those? But never seem to show any awareness of their own shortcomings?
In an age where there is constant pressure on companies large and small to change and adapt, and to do so rapidly, such leaders are not simply pathetic or annoying: they are dangerous.
In leadership roles, we can’t expect those we lead to change and grow if we are not prepared to change and grow ourselves. Which first of all requires that we know ourselves, not just our strengths and finer qualities, but our foibles, limitations and inadequacies.
This is not new.
The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about human nature and how we can sometimes be our own worst enemies, especially by the lack of a true self-knowledge and self-awareness.
On the walls of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were inscribed the words “gnothi seauton” – “Know thyself”.
And various Greek philosophers, the immortal Socrates and Plato among others, discoursed on this principle.
A story of transformative leadership
I was reminded of the “Know thyself” principle recently, when I interviewed Dan Musson, who had in the preceding seventeen months or so driven a major transformation of the organization of which he is CEO.
Dan Musson heads up the Australian Institute of Management, a 72 year old national institution in the management and leadership training field. In early 2014, as the new CEO, Dan commenced the task of bringing together into one, unified national organization a collection of state and territory divisions, which at that stage “actively competed against one another” and where “the only thing they had in common was a logo”.
After spelling out the scope of that transformational challenge and the strategy and processes followed, Dan spoke about the necessity for leaders of such processes to know themselves – and to “walk their talk”.
“If you’re going to be a leader in an organisation and drive transformational change, you really need to understand yourself. You need to understand your values, your strengths. You need to stay true to those things and be absolutely clear with those. And people need to not just hear the demonstration of that, they need to see it.”
Know yourself to know others better
One of the most important reasons for a leader to apply the “Know thyself” principle is to be better able to know and understand the people she or he is to lead.
Plato alluded to this, and centuries later – just over 350 years ago – the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in his The Leviathan:
“…but to teach us that for the similitude of the thoughts and passions of one man, to the thoughts and passions of another, whosoever looketh into himself and considereth what he doth when he does think, opine, reason, hope, fear, etc., and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know what are the thoughts and passions of all other men upon the like occasions.”
It’s not easy
One hundred years after Hobbes penned those words for The Leviathan, Benjamin Franklin, in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, wrote,
“There are three Things extremely hard: Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.”
Yes, it can be painful, facing our shortcomings.
There are pretty clear indications that the “Know thyself” admonition to visitors to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and various commentaries on the topic by the Greek philosophers had a strong element of reminding listeners of the need for some healthy humility. The original admonition was after all seen as being a message from the gods to humans, with a “know your place” sub-text.
But it’s not all about limitations
The leaders I have known at first hand and whom I most admire have not been unaware of their shortcomings. On the other hand, they have not allowed those shortcomings to hinder their commitment to doing a great job of leading.
But some leaders, like a lot of people everywhere, are at risk of being too cautious, too hesitant, precisely because they know they are not perfect, not immune to making mistakes. Such leaders especially can benefit from having sincere encouragement.
As Coachville explains:
The more often, and deeply, the coach champions their client at all levels (including their actions, progress, dreams, traits, commitments, gifts and qualities), the more encouraged the client feels and the more likely they are to succeed.
And the more competent and self-assured a client appears, the more I remind myself not to take that confidence for granted and to do some periodic championing.
Because, let’s face it, however well we think we know ourselves, if we are pretty balanced people we know we Lcan all do with some genuine encouragement from time to time.