”In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time — literally — substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.” – Peter Drucker, “Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself”, Leader to Leader, No. 16 Spring 2000

In Ancient Greece the philosopher Socrates famously stated at his trial, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. This quote from Socrates comes from Plato’s Apology and is his recollection of the speech Socrates gave to defend himself at his trial. Socrates was accused of not recognising the gods and corrupting the youth of Athens by encouraging them to challenge accepted beliefs and to think for themselves.

The jury found Socrates guilty of corrupting the minds of Athen’s youth and of impiety (not believing in the gods of the state). Before they decided on his sentence the jury asked Socrates to propose a suitable penalty.

There were a few options Socrates could choose from as his punishment including death, exile or remaining silent. Socrates believed that a life in exile or remaining silent would rob him of the very thing that gave life it’s meaning. He believed that the purpose of life was personal and spiritual growth through self-examination – using a process that has come to be known as socratic method. The process of having conversations with others helps to reveal flawed thinking and blind spots you’re unable see yourself. Socrates knew that unless you’re free to examine and reflect on your life, you’ll not grow. Given this Socrates rejected the idea of exile or remaining silent as punishment. Instead he offered to pay a fine.

The jury rejected his proposed fine and instead sentenced him to death.

“No man is free who is not master of himself” – Epictetus

The lesson from the trial of Socrates is important for leaders. Which is that unless you examine and reflect on your life you’ll not grow, develop or reach your potential. It’s only as you examine your life that you get to know yourself and to understand your personal motivations, values, desires, talents and strengths. It’s in developing these personal insights that provides the foundation of all successful leadership.

unexamined life

”The quest for leadership, therefore, is first an inner quest to discover who you are and what you care about, and it’s through this process of self-examination that you find the awareness needed to lead.” – James Kouzes and Barry Posner, Leadership Begins With an Inner Journey

It’s only as you examine your life that you are able to identify the changes you need to make to develop your leadership.

Leadership Begins with Leading Yourself

”Until you truly know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word” – James Kouzes, Barry Posner, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It

Leadership begins with leading yourself. The process of developing as a leader is intertwined with personal development. This is why knowing yourself is the foundation of successful leadership.

“No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, to use yourself completely – all your skills, gifts and energies – in order to make your vision manifest. You must withhold nothing. You, must, in sum, become the person you started out to be, and to enjoy the process of becoming.” – Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

You cannot begin to lead without a good understanding of who you are. Becoming a leader starts with knowing yourself and what you want to make of your life. Knowing yourself is the foundation of strong character, purpose and authenticity. It’s only when you understand who you are, not what the world thinks you are, that you’re ready to lead.

”The quest for leadership, therefore, is first an inner quest to discover who you are and what you care about, and it’s through this process of self-examination that you find the awareness needed to lead.” – James Kouzes and Barry Posner, Leadership Begins With an Inner Journey

Having a deep understanding of who you are and where you’re going provides the context for where and how you lead.

Self-awareness: The Process of Knowing Yourself

Knowing who you are means having an accurate understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, values, beliefs, motivations and desires. Successful leaders have developed this self-knowledge by committing to continually improving their self-awareness.

The Oxford Dictionaries defines “self-awareness” as the “conscious knowledge of one’s own character and feelings”. It’s built on an honest assessment and reflection on one’s personality, character, strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, values, motives and desires.

“For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform.” – Seneca, A Roman philosopher

Seeing your reflection in a mirror provides you information needed to make adjustments to your appearance. The mirror acts as a catalyst to help identify what changes you need to make. In the same way self-awareness is a catalyst for personal development, change and growth. Self-awareness is the foundation of all personal and leadership development.

“Observing yourself is the necessary starting point for any real change.” – Brothers Chalmers

Just as your reflection in a mirror reveals changes you need to make to your appearance. Self-awareness helps you to identify thinking, beliefs and behaviours you need to change to improve your leadership.

  • It’s self-awareness that helps you address gaps in your leadership.
  • It’s self-awareness that triggers your desire for change.
  • It’s self-awareness that keeps you growing.
  • It’s self-awareness that inspires the trust.

What Successful Leaders Know

become yourself

Leaders have deep knowledge of who they are and what they believe. Knowing your personality, values, strengths, motives and desires allows you to be proactive in the choices you make and how you lead. In the journey to knowing themselves leaders have develop self-knowledge in a number of important areas.


Leaders know what’s important to them, they know their values, they’re clear on what motivates them and they know the impact they want to have on the world. It’s this understanding that is the compass by which leaders navigate through the complexities of life.

Personal values are the starting point in the journey to increased self-awareness. What exactly are personal values? Personal values are a set of personally held beliefs, principles and standards of behaviour. Personal values are your choices and preferences about how you want to live your life. Examples of common values include integrity, teamwork, creativity, responsibility, etc. Values are often adopted from society and people in authority such as our parents, teachers, religious leaders, bosses, family and friends.

”We’ve asked thousands of people over the years to imagine a scenario where someone walks into the room and announces to them and their colleagues, “Hi, I’m your new leader!” At that very moment, what do you want to know from this person? What are the questions that immediately pop into your mind? While there are lots of questions someone would want to ask that individual, by far the most frequently asked is: “Who are you?” – James Kouzes and Barry Posner, Leadership Begins With an Inner Journey

Leadership is intensely personal. Successful leadership demands you take responsibility for directing your life. All great leaders made a decision to accept the responsibility to develop themselves and to express their own unique vision, purpose and values.

We learn from history that people expect their leaders to stand for something. Successful leaders have a clear set of principles, beliefs and values upon which their leadership is built and expressed. Consider some of the most admired leaders from history such as Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mother Teresa. Each of these leaders expressed themselves through a strong set of personal values and beliefs. These leaders used their values as a compass to guide their leadership decisions and actions. Personal values are especially important for leaders as they determine how a leader chooses to exercise power.

Personal values are the foundation from which you establish and maintain relationships with others. When you are not clear as to your values you’re easily swayed by the opinions of others. When you’re inconsistent in your decisions and actions trust is eroded and people perceive you as being political. However when you are clear as to your values you are a lot more consistent in your decisions and actions. And consistent behaviour is critical if you’re to build trust. When you’re consistent people can predict your behaviour and predictable behaviour builds trust and safety.

Your personal values impact how you relate to people, how you respond to situations and the example you set for others.

Are you clear as to what are your core personal values? If not, take some time to define your core personal values. What are the five values that are most important for you?


”Know thyself, then, means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be.” – Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

Successful leaders understand their personality. It helps a leader know what environments, people, information and support they need to be successful. I

Over the years psychologists have developed a number of personality theories that explain why people think and behave the way they do. One widely accepted model of personality is the big five model, also known as the five factor model. This model describes personality as consisting of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

There are a number of assessments available that you can use to help you understand your personality. Some assessments are useful, whilst others are misleading, so it’s important to do some research before taking a personality assessment. Consider the following assessments as a start:

These assessments provide a way for you to become aware of your own personality.


To succeed in this new world, we will have to learn, first, who we are. Few people, even highly successful people, can answer the questions, Do you know what you’re good at? Do you know what you need to learn so that you get the full benefit of your strengths? Few have even asked themselves these questions. – Peter Drucker, “Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself”, Leader to Leader, No. 16 Spring 2000

Successful leaders exploit their strengths and manage their weaknesses. Whilst you may be good at many things you are only really great at a few things. Self-aware leaders know the few things that they are great at and are constantly working on improving on these few key strengths.

”Self-aware people can also be recognized by their self-confidence. They have a firm grasp of their capabilities and are less likely to set themselves up to fail by, for example, over-stretching on assignments. They know, too, when to ask for help. And the risks they take on the job are calculated. They won’t ask for a challenge that they know they can’t handle alone. They’ll play to their strengths.” – Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review

Self-aware leaders play to their strengths, this allows them to focus their time and energy where they can contribute maximum value. Knowing their strengths helps leaders develop confidence in their abilities. It’s this confidence in their strengths that allows them to take risks involved in pursuing a challenging vision.

Leaders who are aware of their strengths know what they need from others to complement their leadership abilities.


”Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree at the right time for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not easy.” – Aristotle

Daniel Goleman popularised the idea of emotional intelligence with his bestselling book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”. Wikipedia defines emotional intelligence as “the capacity of individuals to recognize their own, and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior”. Daniel Goleman identified the following five factors of emotional intelligence.

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social skill.

Leaders understand that how well they manage their own emotions and the emotions of others is important for effective leadership. Emotional intelligence enables leaders to monitor their emotions and helps them respond appropriately to interpersonal interactions, such as conflict and stressful situations.

Emotionally intelligent leaders are able to identify the needs, motivations and perspectives of others. This enables them to inspire, motivate and develop productive relationships.

Emotionally intelligent leaders are aware of the impact their emotions and actions have on others. This allows them to adjust their behaviour and interact with them in a more positive manner. The more leaders are able to understand their emotions and motivations the more they are able to understand and motivate others.

There are a number of emotional intelligence assessments you can take to improve your self-awareness in this area. Look for an assessment that is underpinned by good research and that is statistically reliable.


Todays fast-paced world keeps us busy making it difficult to slow down and reflect. Society drives us to fill the emptiness of our unexamined lives with busy work and the latest bright shiny things. The result is many people fail to take seriously their journey of self-discovery.

In today’s society it’s a radical act to slow down, stop and contemplate your life. Do it anyway!

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Successful Leaders Know Themselves