Although it may sound simple, becoming self-aware and being present in the moment is challenging, yet can be one of the most rewarding processes a leader can embark upon.
How many times have we sat around a boardroom table and got that same feeling we had as a child walking onto the school playground for the very first time? The anxiety in the pit of our stomach, the sweaty palms and sense of dread. This feeling is all too familiar to us, as it often creeps up when we least expect it.
It’s the first warning sign that something in our subconscious is being triggered, yet before we know it, we are reacting in the same way we always do, by defending ourselves. We lean forward and make a strong point, shout across a table or even retreat in silence and say nothing. Whatever our reaction, it is one that often makes us feel uneasy, and one we keep battling to overcome and ignore.
Yet, what if we were to actually listen to these ‘warning signs’ and see what they tell us? What if we were to take note of them and try to understand where they are coming from? What triggers them and how can we learn to overcome these heavily loaded micro moments that keep repeating themselves? What if we were able to cultivate our self-awareness to a point that we are able to anticipate these triggers and moderate our reactions?
Stephen Covey (author of ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’) looks at self-awareness as ‘our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.’ Now that’s a tall order.
I can come up with a thousand reasons why becoming more self-aware is not practical, not realistic and simply not reasonable. Time is just one of them. I am far too busy to stop and think of the way I come across, or why I say what I say. The job has to get done and I need to get on with it. That’s fair reasoning, until one realises, sometimes when it is too late, that it is these exact same triggers and reactions that prevent us from being authentic leaders. It is this lack of reflection that prevents us from stepping outside of ourselves and examining the way our behaviour is affecting those around us.
Imagine yourself in a car, you’re on your way to a meeting and you’re running late. Your heart starts racing, you look at your watch a million times and you get that sense of dread. No matter how fast you go, no matter what you do, nothing will change your predicament. Your mind is resigned to being late, yet your body reacts and there is no stopping it. This is the same reaction you had as a child. This moment in the present takes you back to your childhood and the anxiety you felt on your first day at school. It surfaces at this moment. Think about it for a second. You’ve been in this situation a number of times, and each time you feel the exact same way. Panicking will get you nowhere, reacting may lead you to crashing into the car ahead of you, screaming might help for an instant but take you back to where you started from.
So, you can start by breathing. Focus on your breath and slow down your heart rate. This is the first step. Breathing is terribly underestimated yet ask any expectant mother – this is what gets her through the toughest of situations. It’s the same technique you would use with a child who is sobbing after a fall. The power of our breath to calm us down. Think of how transformative this can be around a boardroom table when you become aware of how you are feeling.
Self-awareness is possibly one of the most overlooked leadership traits, yet also one of the most easily available. It depends only on ourselves and our willingness to stop and reflect in order to better understand what is motivating our reactions and how these reactions affect those around us. If only our leaders were to get a sense of how they are feeling and moderate their reactions, can you imagine how this would transform the boardroom, and any company culture? Yet how many of us choose to ignore those warning signs and keep going? How many of us find it too difficult to stop and reflect?
Becoming more self-aware is the first step. There is no easy way. We have been doing the same thing over and over for years – it’s become part of who we are, and we are not huge believers in change. Awareness may be uncomfortable, yet transformative. What can we start with?
By stopping to reflect and understand how we are reacting, we are allowing ourselves to stop and think, giving us a better sense of purpose, openness and trust, which will all contribute to making us better leaders. It starts with one step, one breath.
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