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How to Become a Self-Aware Leader and Why it Matters

Self-awareness is a key leadership skill, one that most leaders overlook and most employees focus on intently.

We know self-awareness is essential for growth. If you don’t know where you are, you won’t know what steps to take to reach your goals. But more importantly, a lack of self-awareness impacts our emotional intelligence which directly affects our ability to regulate our behavior. This self-regulation is essential to effective leadership and sets the tone for our teams.

Why Emotional Intelligence Matters to Leadership

The Oxford Dictionary defines emotional intelligence (EQ ) as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” In short, it’s the ability to recognize, understand, and effectively manage our emotions so we can facilitate high levels of collaboration and productivity. In both cases, self-awareness is the foundation.

Unlike behavioral tendencies and inherent motivations, which are for the most part fixed, EQ is a skill, a competency of leadership, and like all skills, it can be improved if you work on it. EQ is also recognized as one of the key drivers of performance success; a recent Udemy report showed that 88% of employees value emotional intelligence in leaders.

When skilled at regulating emotional responses, you can stay clear-headed in challenging situations. This calm and clarity in thinking allow you to make better decisions despite what is happening around you.

How to Cultivate Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Simply put, it’s our ability to understand what we are experiencing (elation, sadness, anger), what triggers it, and what the impact is. Identifying and tracking triggers helps us notice when we are having a strong response, and understand what triggered the emotion.

You can master self-awareness in two steps:

  1. Track situations that elicit strong emotions. Pay close attention to your emotions. Notice when you have intense feelings of joy or frustration in response to specific events or a response that was or wasn’t helpful in a particular situation.
  2. Identify the trigger. It’s tempting to attribute emotion to something on the surface, but the trigger often stems from something deeper. You can’t respond appropriately if you don’t understand what is happening and why, so dig into the emotion to find the root cause.

How to Self-Regulate

Once you understand what triggers you and why you can focus on the act of self-regulation. Managing your reactions allows you to stay in control and do the work that needs to get done instead of being held hostage by what you’re experiencing internally.

Here are 3 steps for developing self-regulation skills:

  1. Seek feedback. Initially, it may be difficult to recognize when you are having a strong reaction. Sometimes, your colleagues notice your reactions even if you don’t. For example, you might not feel your face grimace, but they will see it. Seek their feedback on how you respond to triggers.
  2. Find a better way. Once you understand your responses, resolve to give a better response next time.
  3. Practice. There are many methods to manage your reactions. Experiment to find the one that works for you.

Self-regulation extends beyond emotions. Understanding your own behavioral tendencies, as well as your team members’, allows you to flex and bend to meet others where they are. When you set an emotionally intelligent tone for your team, you empower everyone to cultivate their own emotional intelligence and self-regulation, which over time dramatically improves workplace culture and performance.


Oxford English Dictionary
2018 Employee Experience Report

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About Amy Lafko

As a Physical Therapist, Amy spent years in school learning best practices for patient care and how to put the patient first. Like so many technically skilled clinicians, she advanced to a leadership role. Spending 20+ years in operational leadership, she had an epiphany: Putting the customer first isn’t the path to success or fulfillment. Rather, the most successful organizations and practices put their people first – and exceptional customer care, profitability, and effectiveness naturally followed.