The importance of self-awareness

EJP This article was originally published by JUF News

Students and colleagues often ask whether there is a sole attribute that defines effective leadership. Most experts would support the finding, encapsulated in a 2007 megastudy published in the Harvard Business Review, that there are no “universal characteristics, traits, skills, or styles,” that constitute the “profile of an ideal leader.” Good leadership assumes a multiplicity of forms, and it would be a mistake to reduce effective leadership to a single characteristic. That having been said, however, there is considerable evidence that without the trait of self-awareness, one cannot hope to lead effectively. As the widely respected Center for Creative Leadership explains, “… strong interpersonal skills, grounded in personal reflection and self-awareness, are the key to effective leadership.”

I was reminded of the importance of self-awareness recently during a presentation at Spertus by the acclaimed statistician, Nate Silver. In discussing why so many predictions fail, the man who famously foretold the results of the 2012 presidential election with astounding accuracy noted the following irony, “The more one acknowledges one’s biases, the less likely one is to make biased decisions.” To illustrate, Silver noted that individuals who admit to a bias in favor of hiring male candidates over similarly qualified female candidates, actually hire more women than those who claim no such bias.

This is a fascinating insight, and although Nate Silver was not talking about leadership per se, it has enormous resonance for those who lead. Simply stated, an important corrective in overcoming a prejudice is the self-awareness required to acknowledge that prejudice in the first place. Leaders honest enough to admit their biases are uniquely qualified to compensate for those weaknesses.

Jewish sources insist that though it is imprudent to deny one’s limitations, including predispositions and biases, the presence of those shortcomings ought not prevent us from leading effectively. According to the Torah, when God summons Moses to lead the Jewish people his reaction is to reject the call because of his own failing, averring “I am not a man of words” (Ex. 4:10). God then assures Moses that not only will He be with him, but his brother Aaron will serve as counselor and spokesperson. Only when Moses is certain that his weaknesses can be compensated for does he feel sufficiently confident to assume leadership of the people.  

This is not the only episode in which Moses mistakenly supposes that a leader needs to be perfect, to know it all and to do it all. During the Israelites’ early years wandering the desert, Moses is called to task by his father-in-law, Jethro, for shouldering the entirety of the nation’s leadership responsibilities. “The thing you are doing is not right,” he tells Moses, ” You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Ex.18:17-18). Jethro goes on to instruct Moses to surround himself by capable individuals who can share in the leadership.  

A similar idea is reflected in a now popular article published several years ago in the Harvard Business Review titled, “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” (2.07). In it the authors make the following point, “No leader is perfect. The best ones don’t try to be – they concentrate on honing their strengths and find others who can make up for their limitations.”

Great leaders acknowledge their weaknesses. They take responsibility for their biases, but refuse to be defined by them. Thoughtful leaders learn to compensate for their limitations, sometimes by self-remediation, other times by surrounding themselves with people who bring to the enterprise talents, skillsets and perspectives that they lack.  

Nate Silver’s insights challenge all who lead. Ask yourself: What are the biases that I bring to the table? In what ways do they impede my ability to lead effectively? What can I do to compensate for these limitations in ways that will enhance the overall leadership of the organization?

—This piece originally posted in JUF News

Hal M. Lewis