Being aware of one’s strengths, weaknesses, and preferences enables leaders to decide where to focus their efforts and know when to seek help from colleagues. Becoming a self-aware leader involves a three-step process that Mabel Miguel, professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, explained in an interview with Academic Leader.

Introspection—Assess your personality, values, and skills by simply asking questions of yourself about how you react to certain situations or by using a variety of instruments.

“Know how you like to work. What kinds of settings are amenable to the kind of work you enjoy doing the most and you do particularly well? You learn this not just through introspection but also by asking people. Never accept a position until you understand what it entails. What are the attributes of someone who is successful at this job?” Miguel asks.

Self disclosure—Share with others what you learn about yourself from introspection.

Invite feedback—Ask others what they think of the things you shared during self-disclosure and whether the results are accurate. In some instances, asking for feedback from colleagues (particularly junior faculty) can be awkward. Miguel says that rather than asking directly for feedback on one’s own performance, asking questions such as the following is less confrontational and could yield useful information:

  • How are things going?
  • Is anything standing in your way?
  • Do you have what you need to get your work done?
  • Can I help you in any way?

“Clearly, if the problem is the department chair, that could be a difficult conversation. I’m not saying this will work every single time, but if you communicate openness and interest and you welcome feedback, you’re far more likely to put people at ease and they’ll be more likely to tell you things you need to hear,” Miguel says.

Personality is not destiny

Being aware of your personality by taking a personality inventory can help you determine whether a position is right for you or whether there are aspects of a position that can be delegated to someone else.

Personality is a set of preferences that becomes relatively stable by age 25 or so. However, personality does not dictate behavior. “You can learn to behave in ways different from what your personality spontaneously has you do,” Miguel says.

She compares this to writing with your nondominant hand: “If you sign your name with your preferred hand, it is quick, looks reasonably good, and takes little energy. If I make you sign your name with your other hand, it will take a long time, and it requires a lot of concentration. And it won’t look great. Personality is a preference, just like which hand you write with is a preference. Is it possible for you to learn to write with your nondominant hand? Yes, it is. It will always take more energy. It will always take more concentration and more deliberateness, but you can do it.”

As with learning to write with your nondominant hand, you can develop competence in areas beyond your personality preferences. Some skills can be developed, yet others may be beyond your grasp no matter how hard you try. Some leadership tasks may not interest you, and you may look for ways to minimize your time and effort spent on them.

Knowing your preferences helps you manage yourself and your career. Miguel points to an article by Peter Drucker in Harvard Business Review that addressed this idea: “You need to understand yourself pretty well so you can manage yourself. You need to understand your personality and values. You need to do your utmost to tailor your job so that you use your strengths, because it’s very difficult to be successful if you’re always playing to your weaknesses,” says Miguel, summarizing Drucker’s thoughts.

It’s not as simple as saying, “I don’t like paperwork, so I’m not going to do it.” Rather, it might mean seeking help from others with skills and interests in tasks in your areas of weakness or beyond your interests. “Surround yourself with people who complement you, who can help you with the parts that don’t come naturally to you,” says Miguel. “It’s not necessarily pure delegation. It could be more like a partnership. It could be you telling your second in command, ‘Hey, you’re really good at this. I’m going to rely on you for advice and guidance, and sometimes I may ask you to step in.’ It doesn’t have to be delegating to people. It could be simply consulting them.

“You can manage a variety of things so you minimize the number of tasks you have to do that don’t really play to your strengths. It doesn’t mean you shirk your [responsibilities]. It means you get the help you need. Ask, ‘Is this really core to the job? Is this really necessary? Do I really need to do this? Can I delegate some portion of it?’ Each person will manage his or her career according to what he or she thinks is fair to peers and subordinates. You need to be honest about what you do well and what you do less well.”

Being self-aware and seeking advice, assistance, and development opportunities are particularly important in higher education institutions because many leaders come from the faculty and don’t necessarily have leadership experience or even aspire to leadership positions. They may simply be the best candidate (or the only one willing) from a limited pool.

“The normal recruiting model is an optimizing model. You generate all these applicants and then you select the best. In most situations we’re ‘satisficing.’ We don’t have huge pools of people to choose from. We often have zero degrees of freedom. It’s this person or that person,” Miguel says.

Reprinted from “Becoming a Self-Aware Leader” in Academic Leader 28.9(2012)7,8 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.