Esteem, awareness and interest: the three ‘self’s’ behind great leadership

Very few leaders are extraordinary, and in fact, most are mediocre. There’s three key, inter-related areas where businesses can focus their efforts in order to help leaders improve and shine.

Learning is an integral part of any successful leadership journey. Simple but true.

One discussion we have a lot at the moment is around what a candidate short market it is. In fact, it’s not just a candidate short market, it’s a market where there’s a serious shortage of high-quality top talent. Particularly when it comes to leaders.

This shortage of quality leaders is a source of frustration for many businesses. And the reason this has come about is not just because of market conditions and the external environment, but because we haven’t been investing the time in helping our leaders become better. Less than 10 per cent of leaders are truly extraordinary. They’re not bad – in fact, probably only around 20 per cent of leaders are bad. The remaining 70 – 80 per cent of leaders are merely average. They’re promoted for technical excellence then left without much support to become a leader. There’s little chance to improve. Then, these average leaders are who lead the next generation of potential leaders. The cycle continues.

We need to take it back to the core of the issue: why are so few leaders great and how can we improve this across the board?

What distinguishes a great leader?

If you want to identify what really makes someone stand out as a leader, look at the ‘three selfs’: self-awareness, self-confidence and self-interest. Let’s look at these in more detail, as well as how they feed into each other and impact leadership as a whole.

  1. Self esteem

Throughout our careers and lives, we are all subject to personal and professional experiences. This in turn can affect self-esteem, which over time impacts confidence and level of security. Low self-esteem can be projected in different ways – at one extreme, the person appears quiet and meek and the other end, arrogant.

  1. Self-awareness

There is a difference between superficial self-awareness and deep self-awareness. Superficial awareness involves going skin deep to address assessments and reviews and to make adjustments based around these. On the other hand, deep sell-awareness involves a level of reflection so profound it can feel uncomfortable. However, this discomfort is where people really learn.

  1. Self interest

If you let fear drive your decisions – such as fear of losing your job, your colleague beating you to the promotion – you will let self-interest make your career decisions for you.

Think of self interest like a cycle. Greed and ego are emotions that drive self-interest, which are caused by fear, which again feeds back into self-interest. Making decisions for the enterprise – be that people, culture, performance or profit decisions – is always going to be better in the long run than making decisions for yourself. This is what an extraordinary leader does.

These three selfs are inextricably interconnected. When they are at the low end of the spectrum, it can show weak leadership. On the other hand, when someone is strong in all three, it tends to show extraordinary leadership. In the majority of cases, each of these are in the middle, hence why many leaders are average.

Building the three selfs

The question then becomes, from an organizational perspective, what more can we do to build people’s self-esteem, encourage self-awareness and refocus self-interest? In fact, a lot of the political gameplaying, assessments and reviews and other blunt instruments can have a negative impact on people’s self-esteem, which in turn has a knock-on effect on the other two.

Instead, we could try providing every leader with a coach to develop self-esteem and self-awareness. Every single one. That simple act would go a long way and have positive impacts on many aspects of an organization from team performance to staff retention.

Also, the way that many organizations run leadership assessments is not geared to build self-esteem. Yes, feedback is important, both giving and receiving, but it should be delivered in a way that is constructive and aids improvement, not merely assigns blame. We can cover these practices with talk of courageous conversations, but unless conversations are genuinely about helping the leader then they’re not nearly as courageous as they’re made out to be.

As we look to the future of our workforce and how to build high-performing businesses headed by extraordinary leaders, we should be taking an approach which comes back to the very root of the issue: how we can actively help leaders grow into their full potential.

If you’re interested in improving leadership skills in your team, have a look at our coaching services.

Hunton Executive is here to support you on your leadership journey to create a sustainable and successful career. 


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