How to become a leader

Step one to cultivating your image: Develop self-awareness

The biggest obstacle to cultivating your professional image is developing self-awareness. This is extraordinarily difficult because, research shows, what we know about ourselves is limited.

Developing self-awareness means learning to view our actions the same way that others do. Often, there is a gulf between how we explain our own actions and how observers view those actions.

First, we tend to view our own actions as a reaction to external circumstances: “I snapped at him because he was driving me crazy.” Second, we tend to make excuses for ourselves: “Yes, I snapped at him, but I was having a bad day.  I’m a good person.”

While we tend to view our occasional bad behavior as no reflection on our basic goodness, however, others tend to view our actions as reflecting the kind of people we are.

This lesson is made clear to me every day when I do professional reference checks on behalf of my corporate clients.  We do 360’ reference checks, meaning that we call the candidate’s former bosses, peers, and subordinates. We probe deeply, not just into whether the candidates achieved everything they claim to have, but how they actually behaved on the job. This is because company culture is so important, and so it’s crucial to our clients that we pick leaders who will uphold their company values and culture. Invariably, our reference checks are highly revealing, not because people tend to lie about their style, but because many people have only a dim idea  of how their actions are perceived.

Developing this objectivity is such a huge advantage in your career that you should do this in any way possible. It starts with committing to constantly step outside of ourselves, and try to look at our actions as others view them. Rather than make excuses for ourselves, we need to carefully evaluate every piece of criticism that we receive, and search for nuggets of truth within. We must carefully watch other people’s reactions to us, and when we see areas of friction, reach out actively to bridge the gap.

Ask your trusted colleagues to watch out for you. Focus carefully on the types of reactions you receive from other people. At all times, be aware that your behavior defines you. You will be judged not on your intentions and hopes, but rather on your actions.

Cultivating an accurate self-image is always a challenge. None of us is as brilliant, generous or impressive as we believe. Once we begin to learn to look at ourselves with some objectivity, we can start to change our behavior so that it corresponds with the kind of person we ideally would like to become.

Comments in English and Chinese are welcome, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.