General Stanley McChrystal who is considered to be a leader’s leader by the U.S. military thinks that the two most important personal leadership qualities are self-discipline and empathy. He talks about knowing leadership best practices but having days when you know you haven’t done your best. He thinks it is not a failure of knowing of the right thing to do but a failure of self-discipline.
Empathy, the capacity to see things from someone else’s perspective and see oneself from someone else’s perspective is his second skill and is also crucial to good leadership. Self-discipline and empathy are central to building the influence and trust necessary for others to follow. Being able to make a good presentation and one’s physical posture along with other qualities are part of leadership but are not vital.
Then there is self-awareness! Since you can’t have self-discipline or empathy without self-awareness, it seems that self-awareness must come first. How would you know you haven’t done your best, if you aren’t aware of both your best and falling short?
Seeing yourself from someone else’s point of view and having empathy is an even more complex self-awareness exercise.It is a special kind of consciousness.
There is much out in the media about self-awareness and also a great deal on mindfulness, consciousness and being choiceful.
Even the great leadership guru, Warren Bennis, said the most important activity of leadership is “know yourself, know yourself, know yourself”. In his book On Becoming a Leader he explores four basic lessons of self-knowledge: (1) You are your own best teacher. (2) Accept responsibility. (3) You can learn anything you want to learn. (4) True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience.
These timeless truths are independent of context or culture or gender and yet we struggle with becoming self-aware and having self-discipline and therefore empathy. I have come to believe that the issue is in boundaries. Where is the line between being self-absorbed and self-aware? Where is the line between compassion and empathy and being self-sacrificing? How do we find the boundary? Do we go down the rabbit hole looking? Who wants to do that? Perhaps our first leadership development activity is to teach emerging leaders how to have boundaries.