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What's in Your Wake?

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The Big Idea

As a young man I was very headstrong, naive and lacking in self-awareness. I had plenty of self-assurance and confidence. But I didn’t have a clue about how I came across to others or how my actions, attitudes and words affected the people around me. In short, I was oblivious to what has been called my “wake,” those things we’re not aware of that agitate the emotional waters behind us.

For most of my teen years I was told by friends and teachers that I had great “leadership potential.” Yet, I had no idea how to go from “potential leader” to “actual leader.” Now, looking back some 25 years later, it turns out the path is not really that big of a mystery. The biggest contributing factor to making the journey is self-awareness.

Inexperienced leaders have what some leadership development experts call “unconscious incompetence.” That is to say, they don’t know what they don’t know. This especially applies to how their actions and attitudes affect the very people who look to them for guidance. To become a better leader, the next stage everyone must pass through is “conscious incompetence.” This is the hardest stage because you become keenly aware of what you don’t know. Here, blissful ignorance ends and you begin to realize you have to acquire new skills, mindsets, and knowledge. Of course, the goal is to get to the point of “unconscious competence,” where you just lead naturally by instinct and you don’t even have to think about the right course of action; you just know. 

"Knowing ourselves takes a lifetime and certainly can’t happen by reading a book...or going to a seminar."

—Kevin Rains, Owner, Carstar Center City

I would encourage you to pause right now and think about where you are on this continuum and also where the people you are trying to develop are.

I am convinced that the bridge between leadership potential and being a highly competent leader is self-awareness. Once we become aware of how our actions, words and attitudes move people—for good or ill—we can then go to work on honing the parts of our leadership that need to improve.

So, how do we gain self-awareness? Here a few of the top ways we can deliberately choose to become more self-aware and in the process, grow in our ability to lead others:

1. Ask those around you how you’re doing. Ask them face to face if there’s anything you do or don’t do that helps them or hinders them. Ask them how you could become a better leader. Trust me: People around you will have an opinion on this if you ask sincerely with a desire to grow and learn. Another take on this is what is called a 360-degree evaluation. Those are obviously valuable but they are very time consuming and sometimes complicated. I recommend simply asking those you lead. It’s a simple, straightforward way to get plenty of feedback and things to work on.

2. Tests. There are all kinds of tests out there and most of them have a free or very low cost version on the internet to get you started. I like the StrengthsFinder, the Myers-Briggs, and the DiSC as great starting points. These tests will tell you how you’re wired and give you insight into preferences that you have that you might not even be aware of. It will also start to answer questions about those around you and why they do some of the things they do. For instance, I’m an introvert. For the longest time I thought I had to be an extrovert to be a good leader. Turns out, introverts can make great leaders but they need time to refuel alone between engagements. A constant flow of people with little to no time to think wears introverts out. I’ve learned to take time alone to recharge my inner battery so I can engage better when the time comes.

3. Look for what bothers you in other people. When do you tend to get frustrated with others behaviors? Those irritants are clues to areas that we might want to take a look at in ourselves. One of the greatest psychologists to ever live, C.G. Jung, said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”  

Knowing ourselves takes a lifetime and certainly can’t happen by reading a book—much less this column—or going to a seminar. It happens gradually, layer by layer like peeling an onion in the daily grind of leading our shops, having the courage to ask for others input, and then taking the time to honestly reflect on how we can grow. 

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