Leadership and Self Perceptions: How Do Others See You?

“He who knows others is learned; He who knows himself is wise.”

– Lao-tzu, Tao te Ching

If you ask an artist what the most difficult subject to paint is, while retaining true likeness, you are likely to get the answer, “Myself.” This is because the most distorted lens we use is the one through which we view ourselves. When artists paint themselves, they are likely to look at their features with varying degrees of self-deception. Sometimes the view is more favorable, sometimes it is less favorable.

Artists’ misperceptions or preconceived ideas of themselves can become the ingredients of a masterpiece. Leaders’ misperceptions of themselves can become the ingredients of a nightmare. While this challenge is all too familiar to artists, it is even more imperative that leaders understand their true likeness, and more importantly, how they come across.

In our twenty-plus years of experience, we’ve been privileged to work with thousands of leaders at all levels within organizations. These leaders have ranged from truly awesome, to pretty good, to downright awful… the equivalent of people repellent. What continues to intrigue us about these leaders, whether they be great, average or scary, is how they personally see themselves as leaders, compared to how others see them.

What we’ve realized after facilitating hundreds of Leadership Development Assessments (360s), is that your accurate self-perception is absolutely critical to your success as a leader. Analyzing the 360 data and comparing the difference between how the leaders see themselves vs. how others perceive them is revealing. Simply, when leaders view themselves as significantly more accomplished than the others participating, we have found an increase of problematic areas identified in the survey. In other words, when the leader thinks they walk on water, their participants almost always indicate that this leader is just barely treading water.

We’ve also come to realize that realistically knowing how we come across to others is tough. We all have blind spots, gaps, and distortions in our perceptions of ourselves. However, our data clearly shows that leaders who have the most accurate self-perception, overall, are viewed more positively by others. In addition, the more accurate the leaders’ self-perception, the better their working relationship with others are, including increased levels of trust, respect and loyalty.

Taking feedback about your ability as a leader has never been easy. Leaders with a false perception regarding how others see them often rationalize feedback by saying, “I’m not that way. They just don’t really know who I am.” These leaders are defensive, sometimes angry, and often blame others for putting them in challenging situations where no leader would be successful. In other words, “It’s them, not me, who needs to change. Just give me better employees, and I wouldn’t be having these problems.”

Leaders who have a more accurate perception of how others see them tend to exhibit very different behaviors. First, they tend to be more critical of their leadership abilities than others are. Second, they are often genuinely humble and want to get even stronger as a leader. In addition, regardless of their leadership skill set or where they are in their career, they exhibit many of the following positive behaviors:

In Touch with Reality: These leaders are out and about on a daily basis, talking with employees, asking them for their insights. They ask for and get employee input regarding problems that need to be solved and changes that must be made. They have the pulse of the team, and their actions demonstrate they care about the team and value their opinions.

Have People Smarts: Not only do these leaders know themselves well, they know what makes other people tick. They understand motivation and factors that make it easier for people to do their work. They are professionals displaying high E.I. (emotional intelligence). People on their team describe them as a people person.

Learners: These leaders, regardless of their expertise, keep on learning. Not only do they personally keep on learning, they inspire others to learn. They are quick to question, explore and grow in their quest to become an even stronger leader.

Goal Setters: With these leaders, things don’t happen accidently. Great leaders, we’ve found, are also great goal setters. They can articulate what they intend to accomplish this day, week, month and year, some even having three to five year plans. They know what they want, and have an action plan detailing what it will take for them to reach their goal.

Recognize Others: These leaders continually look for opportunities to praise and recognize others, showing that they care about and value employees as unique individuals contributing to the success of the team. They spend freely with soft currency – kind words that are genuinely delivered to show their appreciation for an employee’s contribution.

Open to Feedback: Leaders with a healthy self-perception are open to feedback and often encourage others to answer the following question, “How am I doing?” When constructive comments are shared about what the leader needs to change, the leader responds with, “Thanks. I’m glad you talked to me about that. I now know what I need to be working on.”

Change Quickly: These leaders are quick change artists, changing frequently and being a great role model for their team. They stay future focused, maintain a positive vision of the team’s success with the change, and help others to realize the benefits of making the change. They support team members having difficulty with the change, but stay focused on successfully achieving the desired outcome.

Inspire Others to Improve: Not only are these leaders great learners, but they see abilities in others that perhaps even the individual hasn’t yet realized. They see potential in individuals and coach, mentor and inspire the team member to continue to learn and grow. Their positive vision of the employee’s potential often motivates the employee to raise the bar and reach for even higher levels of success.

It isn’t easy. However, being in touch with how others see you as a leader, and taking steps to address areas where they feel you can grow, will help you become an even stronger leader. Open your eyes and replace the lens through which you view yourself. It starts with two actions: asking and listening.

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