Leadership in uncertain time

Self-awareness increases adaptability and effective leadership during uncertainty

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The success of an industry is largely dependent upon leadership within that industry. The power utility sphere is no exception. This applies equally to leaders that are in policy-making and regulatory roles, as it applies to Board Members, CEOs and other executives that are leading power utilities.

Navigant Research stated, “The [energy] utility currently faces a perfect storm.” The electricity industry is undergoing significant and disruptive change, with no consensus on what the response should be. Not only is the rapid change in technology and digital innovation necessitating adaptation, it also creates new opportunities for efficiency improvements. Simultaneously, utility leadership needs to respond to regulatory and policy changes and continuous business model challenges.  Power utility leaders are required to effectively lead amidst the innovation, change and uncertainty.

"It is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost."

- Black Elk

Effective leadership enables, leaders and followers, to “resolve uncertainty through strategies, behaviours and attitudes”. In contrast, in the absence of effective leadership, the uncertainty becomes all-consuming, negatively impacting performance, perceptions and morale. Self-awareness increases the adaptability of leaders as they lead towards positive outcomes for their organisations (Parry & Meindl). 

This article examines the important dimension of self-awareness and the role of self-deception toward effective leadership.

Leadership and self-awareness, and its advisory self-deception

What causes the highly intelligent, highly skilled person appointed in a leadership position to fail, whilst the person with intelligence and skill, but nothing extra-ordinary, appointed in a similar position to succeed? Many academics and authors have explored the topic of leadership and what differentiates effective leaders. The answer: self-awareness. As part of emotional intelligence, self-awareness is one of the factors distinguishing elements of leadership.

Many researchers identified self-awareness as a crucial trait of successful business leaders. In a study named “What predicts success?”, Green Peak Partners in conjunction with Cornell University, studied 72 senior executives across a variety of industries with company turnovers ranging from $50 million to $5 billion. The study focused on the leaders’ ability to drive results and the ability to manage talent. The results were counter-intuitive as it showed that the traditionally applauded hard-nosed, “results-at-all-costs” leaders negatively impacted the bottom line, especially over time. In contrast the self-aware leaders, with strong interpersonal skills, delivered greater financial performance. As it turned out, a high level of self-awareness was the strongest predictor of overall success.

The importance of self-awareness has been recognised by top business schools. Harvard Business School identified self-awareness among one of the key attributes they want to develop through their programmes. In a survey of 75 members of the Business Advisory Council of Stanford Graduate School, self-awareness was rated as the superior competency that leaders must develop. As business schools recognised that self-awareness is an essential managerial capability that will predict managerial effectiveness and leadership success, schools are as such designing leadership programmes that focuses on self-awareness as an essential part of leadership development.

"For us the most important element of self-awareness, especially for those who lead organizations, is a clear understanding of the impact they are having on the people around them."

- Jack Zenger

So, what is self-awareness? Self-awareness is defined in the Oxford dictionary as the “conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires”. For leaders, however, self-awareness moves beyond self-knowledge and extends to understanding the effect one has on others.

With the overwhelming support for self-awareness, it is clear self-awareness should be part of our journey to become more effective leaders, not only for ourselves but for the sake of our organisations. Despite recognising that self-awareness is important, we are often unwittingly and inadvertently guilty of self-deception therefor oblivious to the impact on ourselves and others. It is self-deception that creates a barrier against self-awareness.

Self-deception is “the action or practice of allowing oneself to believe that a false or unvalidated feeling, idea or situation is true” (Oxford Dictionary). Self-deception can be translated as to not knowing, and resisting the possibility, that one has a problem. It is difficult to recognise in oneself but is at the root of many personal and organisational issues. Self-deception blinds us to the true cause of our leadership problems, making the possible solutions to our problems ineffective.

Ironically, self-preservation is one of the root causes for self-deception. It is a defence mechanism that studies show is our way of attempting to cope with frustrations and stress; to avoid pain and anxiety and to make sense of incongruities (Caldwell).

Self-deception is part of human nature, but as leaders, we must move beyond awareness that self-deception exist to the position where self-deception is confronted in our own lives. Practical steps leaders can take includes, practicing mindfulness and reflection. This will not only create insights but will assist in managing stress and anxiety.

Showry and Manasa states that “successful leadership often surfaces when people become aware of critical personal experiences in their life, understand the driving forces, respond by rethinking about self, redirect their moves and reshape their actions”.

Secondly, leaders can test their thinking and thus counter their cognitive biases. Warren Buffet tests his thinking with his vice president, Charlie Munger.

Thirdly, leaders can get guidance and support from coaching, mentoring and therapy as the perspective of another person can counter one’s self-perception. Lastly, leaders can invite feedback. Receiving and processing the feedback is not for the faint-hearted and can be painful. But feedback has an important role to test, and where necessary, adjust self-belief.

Do you live in Self-Deception?

  • You believe you are smarter than most
  • It’s all about you and your vision
  • You are controlling
  • You struggle to listen to others
  • You don’t admit when you are wrong
  • You withhold praise and recognition
  • You communicate disrespectfully
  • You treat people as objects and not individuals deserving respect
  • You justified why you exhibit the behaviours on this list

Self-awareness and self-deception impacts individuals and organisations. Leaders should aim to understand its application, to enhance relationships, build trust and commitment and improve organisational outcomes. Caldwell identified six implications of understanding self-awareness and self-deception in a business and organisational context:

  1. To establish effective relationships, we need to develop a clear insight into ourselves and how we are perceived by others. There is an increasing demand on leaders to be genuine and authentic, by being open to others and the ability to receive feedback which has a positive impact on organisational culture and ultimately the bottom line.

  2. Social contracts are more effectively managed when we have self-knowledge and insight on how we are perceived. To build and maintain interpersonal trust, as well as to be an effective leader, one must seek to understand the importance of social contracts. Self-deception may result in the denial in obligations owed within social contracts, which results in a breakdown of integrity and trust.

  3. Self-leadership, through self-assessment and self-awareness, has been attributed to the successful setting and attainment of goals. Through self-assessment, leaders can define their values, beliefs and priorities and through self-awareness, leaders can evaluate inconsistencies between their beliefs and priorities and their actions as well as to determine why they are not attaining their goals.

  4. For leaders to sustain trust, they must be consistent and congruent. Self-deception causes leaders to be insensitive to such incongruencies. By becoming aware and admitting where our behaviours were misaligned with our commitment, leaders can avoid destroying trust.

  5. By its very nature, self-deception is difficult to recognise in our own behaviour. However, through understanding the characteristics of self-deception in individual and organisational relationships, leaders will be able to recognise the dangers and avoid the pitfalls of self-deception.

  6. By understanding the implicit moral and ethical duties within relationships, leaders can build trust. Self-deception results in an unwillingness to acknowledge these moral duties.

The evidence is clear, self-awareness should be embraced as an important element to effective leadership, whilst self-deception should be confronted continuously as a barrier to self-awareness.

Act Now

The leadership journey of self-discovery is a private matter. Self-aware leaders take the time to reflect and seek out feedback to continually grow. Baldoni formulated three questions that leaders can ask themselves and should ask one or two trusted associates to counter self-deception regarding their leadership. Why not set time aside this week to engage with these questions:

  1. What more do I need?

  2. What else should I be doing? 

  3. How do I accept feedback? 


“Making the commitment to explore the inner reaches of our hearts and minds allows us to be true to ourselves and enables us to honour the duties we owe to self, others and the society in which we live.”

- Cam Caldwell

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Caldwell, C. 2009. Identity, self-awareness, and self-deception: Ethical implications for leaders and organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, 90(3), 393–406.

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Showry and Manasa, K.V.L. 2014. Self-Awareness – Key to Effective Leadership. The IUP Journal of Soft Skills, Vol. VIII (1), 15-26.

Zenger, J. 2014. The singular secret for a leader’s success: self-awareness. Forbes Media. [Online] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackzenger/2014/04/17/the-singular-secret-for-a-leaders-success-self-awareness/#478d4e764cb7.


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