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Effective Leadership Starts with Self-Awareness

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

“I think the more a person is comfortable with themselves, and comfortable with what they know—or in a lot of cases for me in this job, every day is what I don't know…makes it easier to see what's really important and what's not.”

—Senior legal counsel for a leading healthcare product manufacturer

Developing emotional self-awareness is a crucial first step in effective leadership because it lays the foundation upon which emotional and social intelligence is built. We can’t develop skills like emotional self-control, empathy, or teamwork unless we are aware of our own feelings and how they influence our thoughts and behaviors. Emotional self-awareness also helps leaders link their emotions to the effectiveness of their interactions with others.

I examined the relationship between emotional self-awareness and leader effectiveness as part of a University of Pennsylvania leader mindfulness study involving 42 participants from 11 countries. The study included the use of the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) model developed by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis to identify the presence of emotional and social intelligence competencies that have been empirically linked to increased leadership performance. Study participants linked improved emotional self-awareness to a number of positive changes, including:

  • 100 percent reported a significant improvement in workplace effectiveness.
  • 79 percent mentioned more effective workplace relationships.
  • 86 percent described an improved ability to identify and manage their emotions.
  • 81 percent linked improved emotional self-awareness to a reduction in stress.

The results of this study also align with other research indicating that improvements to leadership effectiveness may be achieved more quickly and with a higher rate of success through the incorporation of formal mindfulness training. This is partially due to the role of mindfulness in enhancing emotional self-awareness, and its relationship to other emotional and social intelligence competencies. This complementary relationship helps leaders to identify what types of behaviors are required for specific situations, and strengthens their ability to determine whether or not those behaviors are effective.


The scientific basis for these improvements is believed to be the repeated activation of neural networks through training focused on developing self-observation capabilities. Researchers also indicate that these changes may contribute to an improved capacity for activation of regions of the brain associated with more effective situational stress response and adaptability via neuroplasticity. Many of the same regions of the brain have also been linked to strength in specific emotional intelligence competencies.

Mindfulness aimed at developing emotional self-awareness can be practiced by actively observing yourself when communicating with others. This includes your reactions to verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, and the way those reactions influence your responses. This type of awareness also contributes to emotional self-control, as summarized by a leader who heads strategy and business development for a major global company: “I can really compact the quality of awareness, look at the emotions coming and going just in front of me, and not be swept away by them.” In this context, improved emotional self-awareness will help you learn to recognize and better understand emotions as they arise, which reduces the chances of counterproductive reactions. In addition to committing to a mindfulness program led by a qualified instructor, you may also cultivate emotional self-awareness with the help of a coach trained to guide this type of development, as well as using regular 360 feedback to guide your efforts.

You can find more details about Dr. Lippincott’s research in a recent Harvard Business Review article, as well as a series of articles at Key Step Media.

About the Author

Matthew is the VP of Research & Business Solutions, Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coaching & Training Programs. Matthew completed his Doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigated the relationship between leadership effectiveness, Emotional Intelligence (EI), and mindfulness. Matt regularly authors articles on these topics, and he is a co-author with Dan Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Peter Senge, Amy Gallo, Vanessa Druskat, Annie McKee and others featured in 4 leadership Emotional Intelligence reference books. In September he co-authored an article in Harvard Business Review with Dan Goleman, and has presented his research at Bank of America, and University of Virginia.

Matthew has previously held leadership roles at two major software companies, SAS Institute and i2 Technologies (now jda), where he managed operations and teams in North America and Europe. He has also raised capital, transformed business models, and held leadership positions with smaller organizations, in addition to having been a Junior Olympic competitor (Tae Kwon Do), and an outdoor guide.

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