3 Levels of Awareness

Recently, I was invited to address the senior leaders of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. The 82nd is the world’s most elite light infantry unit. They jump out of airplanes behind enemy lines, and their mission is to forcibly gain entry to enemy territories to secure key targets.

When you’re jumping out of an airplane, it’s critical that you have a full 360-degree field of awareness. You need to know everything that is happening around you. Our modern military has made effective use of technology to extend battlefield information in ways that we could not have even imagined 50 years ago.

Hopefully, your workplace does not feel like a battlefield, but awareness is still a critical component of leadership success.

The Power to Choose

You have the power to choose, but you cannot change what you cannot see. If you are unaware of a threat, either internally or externally, you are defenseless and unable to do anything to address it.

Leaders know that awareness is a competitive advantage. In the external realm, business leaders are constantly seeking to increase their awareness through market data, analysis of trends, big data, analytics, and talking with peers. In the internal realm of human relationships, leaders often walk through a fog because they do not have the same resources and data for awareness.

There are three levels of awareness. Let’s take a brief look at each one and learn how you can improve at each level.

1. Awareness of Self is the Foundation of Leadership

The foundation of leadership is self-awareness. Self-awareness means clearly seeing your strengths, your weaknesses, and your capacity. This includes the ability to become present to your habits and your style. It also includes the ability to consider your own motivations and conducting accurate self-evaluations on a regular basis. Research from The Center for Creative Leadership indicates that self-awareness is one of the top four drivers of leadership effectiveness.

Most executives that I have worked with have already developed a strong measure of self-awareness, but we all have blind spots. Some of the most effective ways to eliminate blind spots and increase self-awareness are psychological self-assessments, journaling and reflection, requesting frank feedback from trusted sources, and working with a professional executive coach.

2. Awareness of Others Extends Your Influence

The second level is the awareness of others. Leaders who have accurate other-awareness gain the ability to extend their influence. Being aware of others includes emotional intelligence and empathy, as well as a clear-eyed assessment of others’ strengths, weaknesses, and styles.

Other-awareness has immediate practical applications. Ken Blanchard taught and popularized a model of situational leadership, which identifies four different leadership styles that may be required when dealing with employees who are in different stages of development or confidence.

Leaders who have strong other-awareness are able to adapt their leadership style to what is most effective for the employee, not just the leaders own preferred style. Being aware of others also helps leaders actively perceive and understand communication from employees and be able to make themselves clearly understood.

Leaders can increase their awareness of others through the use of carefully crafted questions, psychological and style-based assessments, and purposeful observation and reflection followed by dialogue.

3. Awareness of Impact is The Differentiator

The third level is the awareness of the impact the leader has on others. Leadership is not primarily a position or title, nor is it just a set of traits or behaviors. True leadership occurs in the relational dynamic between leaders and followers. A leader may have strong self-awareness and accurate other-awareness, but without the third level of understanding his or her impact, the leader will still be limited. Becoming aware of your leadership impact is the differentiator that separates good from great.

I have written before about how our brains are wired up to produce meaning and interpretation even from limited data sets. Without the third level of impact awareness, a leader may have large blind spots without even knowing it. The leader’s brain fills in a story that interprets the behavior and communication from employees. Frequently, that story is not accurate because it is not based on a clear perception of how the leader is impacting those around them.

Leaders who want to grow in their impact-awareness must begin with an attitude of humility and a learner’s posture. Often a leader’s impact is significantly different from what he or she intended or thinks that it is. Uncovering leadership impact requires time, trust, and sincere mutual dialog.

You Can Grow in All 3 Levels

Whether you are new to a senior leadership role or have 15+ years of executive experience, you have the capacity to grow in all three levels of leadership awareness. Before you choose which one to focus on, do a quick self-diagnostic to see which of the three levels most needs attention.

  • Where do you need greater clarity in your perceptions and awareness: self, others, or impact?
  • Which one of these levels will produce the greatest results if you had more actionable intelligence?

Like America’s elite paratroopers, leaders step out into the unknown every day. The greater your situational awareness is, the more effective you’ll be at leading through challenges.

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