I took this photo while strolling through The Woodlands here in Texas with my son during the holiday. I visualize the photo as a reflection of a typical modern-day organization: you see loose structure with some chaos; you see teams along with individual action; you see most eager to take actions along with a few in the back who do not seem to care; you see diversity but are somewhat unsure about inclusion; you see one, likely still young and fearless, willing to venture out and test the water with many watching on the sidelines. One thing less obvious is who are the leaders in the photo.

Being a leader nowadays is no longer reserved for those with titles. Instead, everyone in the business world today is expected to be a leader, no matter their experience. This means that we need to train everyone around us to have a framework to develop the critical thinking skills for them to grow into leaders. The biggest challenge for many is being stuck in the middle of how leadership should be done and how leaders should behave. There is a proliferation of leadership books and trainings. Yet, traditional methods used to train leaders have not always kept pace with the monumental changes taking place in the world, including how to keep new generations of employees constantly motivated, inspired, and performing at their best. Many leadership experiences historically foster management rather than skills. In addition, traditional leadership studies tend to focus on the leaders themselves, but there is an increasing recognition that leaders are shaped by specific situations and external conditions. Nevertheless, there is an increasing recognition that there is no definitive style, characteristic, or personality trait of great leaders, especially in the context of today’s dynamic business environment.

Leadership obviously means different things to different people. As a result, it is always a struggle to personalize leadership and to translate leadership into decision making and action. In this post, I’ll focus on the importance of self-awareness.

Leadership is About Self-Awareness, Not Self-Confidence

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.” It goes without saying that the foundation of leadership is your character, including integrity, honesty, perseverance, and authenticity. However, leadership is also a combination of both character and competence. Many intuitively assume self-confidence is important for being a leader, but self-awareness is more essential. Self-awareness makes one self-confident, but the reverse is typically not true. People with high self-awareness understand where they are headed and what makes them motivated. By knowing their strengths and weakness, values and aspirations, and how they affect actions and the actions of others, they are likely able to make better decisions and ultimately lead others.

When it comes to our own weakness, we tend to have blind spots.

Self-awareness requires the identification of one’s strengths and leveraging those strengths. Very often, the strengths are developed and accumulated through experiences and setbacks. We often undervalue what we inherently do well because we tend to assume that things that are easy for us will be easy for others. As a result, knowing one’s strength is not always easy, but it is important to reflect on the context in which you thrive. Identify the elements where you flourish. Are you better at starting something new or improving something existing? Do you thrive in a prescriptive environment with clearly defined tasks, or do you prefer ambiguity and having the latitude to figure it out on your own? Are you generally good at delegating to others or prefer more to be part of the action?

Leaders need to reflect on their own weakness, which often manifest as unconscious biases. This is most challenging because solicitation of honest feedback on our biases and weakness, however transformational they could be, is not easy. When it comes to our own weakness, we tend to have blind spots. Willingness to look at ourselves through others’ eyes would help us glean invaluable insight into how our emotions and communication style affect other people. This is especially important in today’s global economy facing very diverse cultures and varied business environment. If you are surrounded by others who share your perspectives, your career paths, and your outside interests, then it’s important to understand how your bias manifests with your teams and your leadership styles. Inclusive leaders need to maintain an objective and healthy perspective by tapping a wide range of different viewpoints.

Informal networking can be a powerful advantage for those who share the same perspectives, same interests, and same cultural background. Inclusive leaders need to be vigilant about not only how the decisions are made, but also who gets heard and who gets excluded from informal discussions, especially in the increasingly virtual business world with people working in remote locations. We are human, and we all have natural biases. Having an open mind, stepping back, and challenging the basic assumptions are warranted and necessary.

Sometimes our strength can become weakness. For examples, experience can lead to a false sense of confidence about our performance. It can also make us overconfident about our level of self-knowledge. Knowing our strengths also offers us a better understanding of how to deal with our weaknesses and helps us gain the confidence we need to address them.

In addition, self-awareness includes knowing how we are being perceived by others. Whether or not the perception accurately reflects our true identity, the perception can and will affect one’s effectiveness in the organization. People who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives into their decision making.

In the end, personal leadership development is often a self-discovery process. Self-awareness is not about diagnosing and treating our fears of inadequacy, but how to leverage our strengths and develop our own personal expression of leadership. The more we learn about ourselves, the more confident we are to be leaders.


Xinjin Zhao WG03 is an executive with ExxonMobil currently focusing on technology scouting and ventures. You can read more of his weekly newsletter on leadership on LinkedIn.