The Brexit Blogs: To see ourselves as others see us

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The map/model is not the reality

Doug Parkin, programme director considers self-awareness as the foundation of leadership development.

Sometimes leadership and management development can feel like a checklist of overlapping skills. We look at things like communication skills, managing conflict, planning, negotiation, performance management, strategy development, political awareness, team dynamics, equality and diversity, change, and so on.  All useful headings, and under each there are valuable things to know, insights to gain and skills to acquire, practise and reflect upon.

But the simple truth is, in leadership who you are drives everything. Not in a confining way, a way that says, ‘you are this and this alone’, but actually a very sophisticated way that acknowledges firstly that to “Know thyself” (a variously attributed maxim from ancient Greece) is a life-long quest, and secondly that we are very adaptive creatures capable of re-inventing ourselves to varying degrees to meet the needs of different situations.

The real skill of leadership development is, therefore, to encourage, promote and support intense self-reflection. This applies particularly to what might be termed personal leadership development, which revolves around the critical question “what sort of leader do you want to be?” Self-knowledge and self-perception is, of course, a big part of self-awareness – nobody knows our personal history better than ourselves, for example – but without some external reference points the perspective this gives us can become quite narrow.  A mirror or two may be needed, in other words, to see sides of ourselves that are otherwise obscured or sometimes conveniently disregarded. And in one way or another those mirrors take the form of feedback.

 O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

Never most noted for his contribution to management consultancy, Robert Burns (1786) nevertheless captured in this line of poetry the essence of 360-degree feedback. I can feel literary scholars wincing as I write, so let’s move on…

Daniel Goleman (1996), in his well-known model of emotional intelligence, defines self-awareness as “Knowing one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals – and their impact on others”.  And emotionally intelligent leaders are people who seek feedback all the time – a variety of external checks and reference points – because they appreciate the mirror this holds up for them and the productive self-reflection that it triggers.

The challenge of effective leadership development is, in many ways, to telescope this process, and thereby create a rich variety of feedback perspectives in a relatively short time scale, and a safe, forgiving space in which to reflect upon them and consider what behaviours to adapt and personal leadership changes to commit to. More extended leadership programmes, incorporating interventions such as coaching and action learning, create review points for these commitments to be refreshed and reinforced. The following figure captures the opportunities for feedback and self-reflection that can occur on well-designed leadership development programmes:

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In an illuminating chapter called ‘When do we get to do feedback?’ Professor Paul Gentle (2014) notes “How rare it is to give and receive extensive and specific feedback on our behaviours”.  Simulation activities and similar structured exercises on programmes create an opportunity for ‘feedback in the moment’. This is feedback that is immediate and which participants can respond to in real time, and it is also an opportunity for colleagues to consider and practise sharing feedback and the appreciative environment that invariably helps to make feedback land effectively. These are transferable leadership approaches that can be used for feedback in teams or projects.

360-degree feedback (or multi-source feedback) tools, particularly those premised on a model of transformational leadership such as the Real World HE TLQ used exclusively by the Leadership Foundation, are a powerful way of making feedback from a participant’s institutional work context part of their tailored development. This feedback is sensitive and confidential to the individual and so one-to-one support from an accredited coach is essential to integrate the learning and align it with other development themes within the programme overall.

Personality-based diagnostics or psychometrics of various kinds attempt to provide an objective view of personality type on an individual basis. This is an opportunity to consider what lies beneath our behaviours, choices, preferences and motivations on an individual level. It is an important part of self-awareness to consider the psychological drivers that reasonably consistently manifest themselves in who we are and how we prefer to live, work and operate in the world. Inevitably, though, the use of any such tool involves using categories and dimensions – spectrums on which we are more or less inclined to see ourselves. Whether it is four, sixteen, or a hundred-plus categories that the tool renders, it is still a simplification because every individual is gloriously unique, but there can nevertheless be great value in exploring the truth within such a diagnostic profile.  And ‘exploring the truth’ is an important mindset to have, because ultimately we are the best judges of our type, even though diagnostic tools can challenge us and help to provoke fresh self-insight (as well as providing us with a short-hand vocabulary for discussing and considering personality – our own and others’). So, whether one uses the four temperaments from ancient times (Hippocrates and Galen), or their more recent cousins found in the work of Carl Jung (Personality Types, 1921), Myers and Briggs (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ([MBTI], 1943), Merrill and Reid (Personal Styles, 1981),  Costa and McCrae (The Big Five, 1985) Margerison and McCann (Team Management System, 1995), or Bolton and Bolton (People Styles at Work, 1996), a learning environment needs to be created that enables the participant to mediate the data from their profile with their own self-awareness and, critically, other forms of experience and feedback. No one mirror can show every view.

There can be concern with some of these diagnostic profiles, such as MBTI, that the dimensions that operate within them create something of an ‘either-or’ approach to classifying people: e.g. introvert or extravert (although ambiversion has been put forward more recently to suggest a balance of the two).  Jung himself said, however, that “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extravert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum” (1957), and this is why the notion of ‘preference’ (or tendency) is so important to the understanding and use of type. Preferences can be weak or strong, they can be hidden or apparent, they can be more or less balanced, but very few of us are trapped or confined by our preferences. As mentioned before, we are sophisticated beings and can learn to operate or excel within, outside or across our type-preferences, but it is nevertheless powerful and useful, particularly for leaders, to have a strong self-awareness of what those underlying preferences are or may be and to calibrate this with feedback from others on how they see and experience us.

Used alone or in isolation personality-based diagnostics can sometimes be of more limited value, and can for some feel like either labelling or a simplistic categorisation.  For this reason, the quality of facilitation or coaching around their use is extremely important, and as regards leadership development it is important to use them in combination with other forms of feedback and self-appraisal (see figure above), as we do at the Leadership Foundation on programmes such as Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership and Future Professional Directors. As illustrated in the lead image above, the map is not reality, it is to some degree a selective representation, and the nature of a management, communication or personality model is that it should create a tool for penetrating the complexity of the intrapersonal and the interpersonal in a useful way. The person who can most effectively ‘explore the truth’ around the model is the individual concerned – they determine ultimately their ‘best fit’ – and for this reason self-appraisal needs to be as strong, if not stronger than the evaluation by others, and this should be a balanced part of the process of developing and enhancing self-awareness for leaders. But the insights that flow from this can transform leadership like nothing else.  After all, you can’t be true to others until you are true to yourself.

Doug Parkin is a programme director for the Leadership Foundation and is responsible for a range of open programmes – including Future Professional Directors, Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership and Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching (in collaboration with the Higher Education Academy). He also undertakes bespoke consultancy assignments for universities and works on some of our main international projects. Key interests include educational and research leadership, the leadership of professional services, strategy development, organisational change and leadership for sustainability.

Picture credits
Photograph of Lego Big Ben courtesy of London Mums Magazine
Photograph of Big Ben courtesy of Wikimedia Commons