Caroline Donaldson: Self-awareness is key to leadership

Working with business leaders, I am struck by the challenges that my clients experience, leading companies in such a radically changing and dynamic world.

Caroline Donaldson highlights the 'bold investment decisions' made by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos. Picture: Contributed
Caroline Donaldson highlights the 'bold investment decisions' made by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos. Picture: Contributed

I believe there are two key traits that are crucial for today’s business leaders to help them meet those challenges – adaptability and self-awareness.

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Because today’s marketplace is so unpredictable, leaders need to be ready to learn fast and move quickly. Their role is to help their organisations adapt and flourish amid the constantly changing political and economic landscape – a very different role from the more traditional and structured hierarchies that most of us witnessed earlier in our careers.

The choices are hard, especially when it comes to letting go of some of our core beliefs and ways of thinking that have worked for us in the past. Today’s business leaders now need to step back, look at what’s happening and what lies ahead, keep asking what is working, learn from their mistakes, and most importantly, learn to thrive from this approach.

A recent McKinsey article, based on research from the worlds’ largest organisations, highlighted how different everything feels from just a decade ago. Leaders are operating in a bewildering new environment in which very little is certain; the pace is quicker, and the dynamics far more complicated. Business leaders worry that it’s impossible to stay on top of all the things they need to know. And yet, there are great examples of success where adaptive organisations are leading the way in the market.

Take Amazon for example. I find being a customer so easy, and their response matches what I want. A lot has been written about their CEO Jeff Bezos, but his philosophy of making bold investment decisions, building the culture, taking risks and thinking long term, has resulted in huge global success.

In today’s economic environment, a leader being adaptable is no longer a “nice to have”, it’s the new normal if you want your company to deliver a real competitive advantage. There is a Chinese proverb that says that “the wise adapt themselves to circumstances, just as water moulds itself to whatever vessel it is in”.

Adaptive leaders show clear direction, dedication and ambition – traits that inspire others to follow them. These individuals are willing to experiment, take calculated risks, encourage innovation, and have a style that is very open. The essence of this approach is that they learn how to follow, and followers learn how to lead.

Perhaps a more difficult skill to craft is self-awareness. This requires digging deep and looking closely at your personality – all of your strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. It’s a quality that allows you to understand other people and how they perceive you, your attitude and how you respond to them.

So why do we need to develop greater self-awareness now? Quite simply, because in today’s economic climate we need to make changes in how we think, in our emotions and reactions.

Self-awareness is the first step in creating what we want and mastering where we focus our attention, our emotions, reactions, personality and behaviour, determining where we go in life. Until we are aware of this and regularly take a good look at ourselves, we will find it difficult to respond appropriately and keep up with the 21st century challenges.

Any high-performing sports person or musician is relentless in honing their craft. Business leaders need to apply the same principles. That might be learning how to play to their strengths and improving the areas they are weaker on, or surrounding themselves with people whose strengths will complement their own and learn from each other.

Either way, it’s time for our captains of industry to take a good look at themselves and start building up their leadership muscles!

• Caroline Donaldson is director at Kynesis Consulting