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Seeing Ourselves Clearly

Most of us like to think we’re self-aware – that we see ourselves clearly. Apparently, most of us are wrong. Research shows that only 10 to 15 percent of us fit the criteria for self-awareness.

Why does it matter? For board directors, self-awareness is an important attribute because when we see ourselves clearly, we can be more effective in the role.

For the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD), self-awareness ranks along with effective judgment and integrity as one of the ‘personal style’ competencies in their list of Key Competencies for Director Effectiveness.

And for readers trying to practice The Six Key Habits of the Savvy Director, self-awareness is an important skill for influencing others.


About Self-Awareness

Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and author who has written extensively about self-awareness. She provides a simple definition in her TED talk, ‘Increase your self-awareness with one simple fix.’

Self-awareness is the ability to see ourselves clearly - to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world.

Why is self-awareness an important skill for board directors? Research shows that those of us with self-awareness have more integrity, make sounder decisions, and form stronger relationships. Some of the other benefits of self-awareness include:

  • Becoming better at collaborating with others because you understand how they perceive your behavior.
  • Strengthening your trust relationships because you’re better at managing your emotions.
  • Focusing your personal development efforts in the right areas because you recognize what you do well and where you need to improve.
  • Being happier because you can align your ideals with your actions.
  • Increasing your motivation by seeking out your true passions.


Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the cluster of abilities that allow us to recognize and regulate emotions in ourselves and others. Deborah Rosati, founder of Women Get on Board, has written about the importance of EI to board effectiveness.

“Emotional intelligence in the boardroom is all about minding your Ps and Qs. However, while easily overlooked, this carries with it the payoff of a more cohesive board that effectively makes better business decisions.” – Deborah Rosati

How does self-awareness fit into EI? Self-awareness is crucial. In fact it’s one of the five components of EI along with self-regulation, social skills, motivation, and empathy.

So, if you’re looking to build your EI so you can improve your boardroom effectiveness, self-awareness is the first step.

As Deborah Rosati relates in her blog post ‘Emotional Intelligence in the Boardroom,’ she often comes across board members who, lacking self-awareness, are “too busy talking and not doing enough listening.” She adds “There will be sometimes where you already know the answer to a discussion, however exercising [self-awareness] means being conscious of your biases, stepping back and considering the subject matter with neutrality.”


Two Types of Self-Awareness

“The bottom line is that self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a delicate balance of two distinct, even competing, viewpoints.” – Tasha Eurich

There are two different types of self-awareness, internal and external. Both types impact our success in the boardroom, because both are linked to some of the elements of director effectiveness that are described in our Savvy Director framework.

Internal self-awareness – how well you know yourself. Internal self-awareness represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, reactions, and fit with our environment. People who know themselves well have higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness, as well as less anxiety, stress, and depression.

  • Internal self-awareness is linked to Savvy Director Key Habit # 5, ‘Think Independently.’ You need it to identify and overcome barriers to clear thinking like subconscious assumptions, cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and Groupthink.
  • It’s also linked to Savvy Director Key Habit # 6, ‘Demonstrate Courage’ because you need internal self-awareness to understand your personal ethics, values, and motivations, and to recognize when you are feeling fearful and how to overcome your fear.

External self-awareness – how well you understand how others see you. External self-awareness means understanding how other people view us. People who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives into account. People who see themselves as others do tend to have better relationships with them and are seen as more effective.

  • External self-awareness is linked to Savvy Director Key Habit # 3, ‘Ask Great Questions.’  You need it to understand how board members are reacting to how you ask questions - your tone, body language, and choice of words.
  • It’s also linked to Savvy Director Key Habit # 4, ‘Collaborate with Others’ because you need external self-awareness to build trust in the boardroom so that you can influence decisions and enjoy good relationships.

Interestingly, there’s no correlation between the two types – a person might have high internal self-awareness, but that’s no guarantee that their external self-awareness is also high.


The Four Self-Awareness Archetypes

If we split each of the two types of self-awareness into high and low levels, we have what Tasha Eurich called the ‘Four Self-Awareness Archetypes.’ The archetypes can be plotted on a two-by-two matrix, as shown below:

In a boardroom context, the four archetypes are:

  • Seekers (low internal and external self-awareness.) These directors don’t know who they are, what they stand for, or how they’re perceived. They might feel frustrated with their role on the board and their relationships with other directors, the CEO, and the rest of the management team.
  • Pleasers (low internal self-awareness and high external self-awareness.) These directors are so focused on how other directors see them that they might ignore what really matters to them. Over time, they could make choices that don’t align with their own values and priorities.
  • Introspectors (high internal self-awareness and low external self-awareness.) These directors are clear on who they are, but they don’t seek the kind of feedback from others that could challenge their views or reveal blind spots. This can limit their effectiveness as board directors and harm their relationships on the board.
  • Aware (high internal and external self-awareness.) These directors know who they are and what they want to accomplish. They seek out and value other directors’ opinions. They’re able to fully realize the benefit of self-awareness in terms of director effectiveness.

As board directors, we need to be actively working on not only seeing ourselves clearly, but also understanding how others see us. Our goal should be to reach the upper right-hand quadrant of the matrix – the Aware quadrant.

Keep reading for two suggestions on how to reach that goal – seeking critical feedback and asking yourself what instead of why.


Seek Critical Feedback

As directors, many of us bring decades of experience and lots of specialized expertise to the board table. On the surface, it makes sense to think that these competencies would improve our aptitude for self-awareness. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

In fact, seeing ourselves as highly experienced can lead to a false sense of confidence – causing us to feel that we can skip our meeting PREP, we don’t need to listen to other viewpoints, and we can avoid questioning our own assumptions. Overconfidence makes us think we’re good at seeing ourselves clearly when we really aren’t.

The way to counteract this tendency is to seek frequent critical feedback. This process helps us be more self-aware and, in turn, others will see us as more effective. In the boardroom context, a sound method of obtaining feedback is through director evaluations. Read our earlier blog ‘Evaluating the Individual Director’ for more on this topic.


Ask Yourself What instead of Why

Perhaps you’re an introspective person – you spend time examining your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and reflecting on why you are the way you are, why you do what you do. Surely the habit of introspection will equip you with an aptitude for self-awareness.

But no. According to Eurich, people who introspect are often less self-aware. As she says in her TED talk, “Thinking about ourselves is not necessarily related to knowing ourselves.”

It seems that asking ourselves why we said something or did something doesn’t lead to self-awareness. That’s because we’re not able to access our own unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives – they’re trapped outside of our awareness. Because of that, we tend to invent answers to our why questions – answers that feel true but aren’t, like Eurich’s example of a manager who, after an outburst at an employee, jumps to the conclusion that it happened because they aren’t cut out for management, when the real reason was a case of low blood sugar.

The way to make introspection more useful is to ask ourselves what, not why. ‘What’ questions help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights.

So, if you’re going to practice introspection to improve your self-awareness, try the following:

  • Instead of asking yourself, “Why do I feel so frustrated after a board meeting?” ask, “What are the boardroom situations that make me feel frustrated, and what do they have in common?”
  • Instead of asking yourself, “Why did a peer director say that about me?” ask, “What are the steps I need to take to do a better job at fulfilling my board role?”
  • Instead of asking yourself, “Why wasn’t I able to persuade the rest of the board to adopt my point of view?” ask, “What do I need to do to be more persuasive?”


Your takeaways:

  • When you’re self-aware, you can be more effective in your role as a director.
  • If you’re looking to build up your emotional intelligence, self-awareness is the first step.
  • There are two types of self awareness – internal (knowing yourself) and external (understanding how others see you.)
  • Both types of self-awareness are strongly linked to the Key Habits of the Savvy Director.
  • Improve your self-awareness by seeking critical feedback and asking yourself what to do instead of why something happened.




Thank you.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.


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