To Become a Better Leader, Be Aware

Photograph by Chris Ryan/Getty Images

Lately I have been having lots of conversations with students and executives about becoming better leaders. While management literature is rife with descriptions and prescriptions for how you, too, can become an excellent leader, in truth, it’s not an analytic skill you can pick up from textbooks or the classroom. Too many people struggle with this concept, even though the questions I often get are deceptively simple: “What exactly am I supposed to do to motivate my team?” ”How do I get top leaders to recognize my successes?”

Uber-achievers, like many current and post-MBAs, often fall into the trap of thinking that working harder will get them ahead—and into that next leadership role. But hard work takes them only so far. What we fail to emphasize in business school and in corporate mentorship programs is the importance of developing softer skills—an “awareness” of yourself and the people around you that helps you leverage previously untapped personal qualities. In other words, leaders need to develop empathy—a concept that is infinitely more complex than it sounds.

Most good managers have strong technical skills, the social skills to manage relationships, and the self-motivation to succeed. Exceptional leaders, however, demonstrate what Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, describes as “awareness.” That is, the ability to read the room (social awareness) and the ability to read your effect on the people in the room (self-awareness).

For example, an executive aware of the people around her will feel the tension at the start of a sales meeting and immediately work to relieve it before launching into the new quarterly sales targets. That leader also will understand that the tenor of her response to a complaint about those quarterly sales targets will mean the difference between escalating that tension and creating a sense that her team can handle—even exceed—whatever sales targets corporate throws at them.

For those leaders who want to be great leaders and see the value of awareness, I urge them literally to take action. Find an executive leadership program that has a strong coaching component that emphasizes your personal style or an experiential learning program, whether it takes the form of an outdoor adventure, acting lessons, or even a local field trip. These programs can open you to new ways of seeing, increasing awareness of your environment, and raising your impact on it.

Some companies recognize the importance of having their own programs for executives they want to grow as leaders. For example, UPS sends eligible executives into the field for months at a time to live and work among their current and prospective employees. UPS executives, thanks to the insight they gain into the challenges their workforce can face, understand better who’s “in the room,” and that helps them build a more motivated workforce.

If you don’t have the time or budget for a formal program, I suggest the following: The next time you lead a team meeting, take a few minutes before you begin to observe the room. Look at the people. Do they seem happy or frustrated?  Are they being friendly, or are they complaining? Are they completely silent? You may want to open the meeting with an empathetic observation, and perhaps a question about what you’ve observed. If the mood is negative, confront what’s causing it and let the air out of it immediately. It’ll settle people, and you can get down to the real work.

Then try taking a step back and consider how you appear. Are your face and body language saying you are open to the conversation? Are you conveying interest by engaging in the conversation, and not judging it or steering it to your ends? How do your people know they can trust you, that you care about them? Be aware. Show them you see and hear them, and they’ll be with you all the way.

Finally, if your team’s mood is upbeat, use it to build energy. Keep people excited and involved. Try giving up the floor, speaking less, and allowing your team to express their own ideas. Create a more participative atmosphere by using flip charts on the wall or even on the table. If everyone has a marker, everyone has a voice. Follow up with an e-mail documenting action items they identified, to show you are listening. Mark progress together. Awareness helps you tap into your team’s potential—and your own as a leader. It helps you make sure people leaving the room have as much energy as when they came in, if not more.

That’s what great leaders do.