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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Leadership Opinion

How Self-Aware Are You as a Leader?

Others may not see you the way you see yourself
By Peter DeWitt — May 02, 2023 7 min read
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How self-aware are you in your leadership?

Are you open to discussing issues with people … or only some people?

Do you lean in when your favorite staff or parents want to talk with you and lean back or fold your arms in an uncomfortable position when “those staff and parents” want to talk with you?

Asking how self-aware a leader is seems like an easy question, but often, leaders don’t consider it unless they are interviewing for a job or being interviewed by someone who is interested in leadership. This is unfortunate because being self-aware as a leader can have an enormous impact on the everyday decisions we make in our school communities.

When asked how self-aware they are when it comes to the way they lead, some leaders throw out words like, “transformational,” “instructional,” or say, “I’m a servant leader” because that is the work they feel they focus on or who they embody as a leader.

Transformational, instructional, and servant are definitely great types of leadership skills to aspire to, but when asked how they know they are practicing one of those or whether they engage with staff to see if they truly are an instructional, transformational, or servant leader, the leaders tend to say they’ve not dug deep enough on the subject yet.

They have a confirmation bias because they tell themselves they are doing the right thing, without asking others whether they are doing those things right. For example, they know that getting into classrooms is a worthwhile instructional-leadership action and they tend to make an effort to get into classrooms, so they have confirmed their bias that they must be an instructional leader. But when asked what they learned about student learning or teacher instruction when they are doing those walk-throughs, they stay with surface-level answers like “students looked engaged” or “students didn’t look engaged.” That’s a good starting answer, but it doesn’t go deep enough.

Two Types of Self-Awareness

Self-awareness in leadership is a topic I have been deeply interested in for a while. Why? Am I just looking for new territory to explore? Don’t leaders have enough on their plates with staff shortages, a lack of substitutes, coming out of a pandemic, and high-stakes testing? Of course, but self-awareness in leadership is about how leaders take the time to understand their actions and next learning moves where those issues are concerned. Understanding ourselves as leaders can help us make the right move, not just the next move. It can help leaders focus on being proactive and not reactive.

You get the idea …

There are multiple ways to look at and understand self-awareness. It’s not as simple as knowing yourself because we may have blind spots when it comes to how we lead or interact with others. Understanding self-awareness means we have to look for feedback from others, even those who may disagree with us in some aspects to our job.

Eurich (2018) suggests that there are two broad categories of self-awareness that emerged in their research. Those two categories are internal self-awareness, which is defined as “how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others” (p. 4).

As you can guess, this is fairly important in leadership. Besides understanding whether we are transformational, instructional, or a servant leader, how leaders react to their staff, students, and greater community is a vital part of school leadership. Stakeholders within a school community want, and I would go so far as to say need, to have a leader that they can feel comfortable talking to.

There are leaders who most likely believe that they have an open-door policy and that they are also someone that is open to every conversation, but their body language and nonverbal reactions may give them away. This leads to Eurich’s second category, which is that of external self-awareness.

Eurich (2018. P. 4) suggests that the other category of self-awareness is our external self-awareness, which is defined as “understanding how other people view us, in terms of those factors listed above” under internal self-awareness. This is often where our internal view that we are open for every conversation or welcoming to others can break down because what really happens is that we are open to talking to some people and want to hide under our desks when other people come into our offices to talk.

Eurich found that internal self-awareness is not more important than external self-awareness or vice versa and that “leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them” (2018. P. 5).

Why is this important?

In my work as a leadership coach or when I facilitate workshops, I often ask leaders what kind of leader they are or how self-aware they are of their actions. Many state that they never really think about it, and others, fearing that they just walked into a test, will throw out words from their leadership studies and then wait for my reaction to see if they passed or not.

The reality is that self-awareness is more than just knowing what kind of leader we are, it’s about understanding what we value, how we react to situations, and, as Eurich suggests, what our strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to our school community and the people within it. This also impacts the decisions we make about what will work with our student population because if we are faking it to make it, then we are at risk of making rash decisions around implementation of ideas, and those ideas may fall flat.

There are some leaders that take time to deeply reflect on their actions and surround themselves with a variety of people who have different perspectives on the school community. Those leaders are more likely to consider which action steps to take when it comes to initiatives or strategies.

Other leaders do not consider their actions and are more likely to get blinded by the shiny new toy or jump on the next initiative they see others talking about on social media, without ever taking the time to truly understand what is happening within their building or district and how this initiative may harm or help their cause.

How Might We Figure It Out?

There are a variety of ways that leaders can gain more awareness and become self-aware. The easy way to gain some understanding about how we truly lead is through the use of a survey. I have heard from principals who not only send out a survey to staff but use the information they gained from those surveys in their faculty meetings. And that includes highlighting what staff do not like about the leader. This, of course, happens more when it comes to anonymous surveys.

The other way to gain insight into how we are as leaders is to record ourselves at faculty meetings or within formal observation settings. This is often referred to as microteaching, and, according to Hattie’s research, has a .88 effect size. It entails recording ourselves for 10 or 15 minutes (with permission from those in the room) and then watching it two or three times. The first time we have to get over the sound of our voice, and then we can move on to truly looking at our body language, facial expressions, and whether we interrupt people when they are talking to us.

Those are two important places to begin if we truly care about gaining self-awareness.

In the End

Leadership self-awareness is not just some soft skill that makes for a good blog or book. It is a topic that can make or break school and district leaders, because if they are not self-aware of their values and reactions, it could have a negative reaction on how they lead and overshadow any of the good work they are trying to focus on.

What Others Say

A few days ago, I Tweeted out the question asking what leadership self-awareness means. The following are three of the responses I received.

Virginia principal Robin Shrum (@PrincipalWWR) said, “Being aware of my weaknesses and strengths so that I know what I need support with and can look for those who will complement my leadership.”

Edmonton, Canada-based district leader Tim Cusack (@CusackTim) said, “For me it means being attuned to my disposition to serve others. A reflective “self-check in” enables me to assess my affective state—how I am feeling—so that I can best gauge how I need to best respond to the needs of my students, staff and stakeholders.”

Virginia educational leader Darrell Sampson (@DctrDarrell) said, “It’s being aware of my strengths and areas for growth and being willing to think through criticism to own if I was at fault, fully or partially, and commit to doing better the next time.”

All three leaders will have individual blogs focused on their ideas of leadership self-awareness posted here in the month of May.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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