The phrase nosce teipsum, know thyself, has been a classic theme throughout history. We discover it in the writings of great thinkers, such as Socrates, Ovid, Cicero, in the sayings of the Seven Sages of Greece, on the entrance to the Temple of Apollo, in early Christian writings, in Vedic literature, and in Taoist texts. Nosce teipsum threads its way through history as one of the pre-eminent precepts in life. Contemporary thought leaders, many of them scientists continue to drive home this principle, especially as new discoveries in neuroscience and related sciences support the wisdom and power of self-awareness.
Yet there are skeptics. Although many leaders are somewhat obsessed with understanding and changing the world or the marketplace in which they operate, only a few, exceedingly aware leaders take the time to understand and change themselves. Why? Self-awareness has too often been relegated to back-seat status…a soft skill that’s nice-to-have, but not critical to tangible, business performance.
New research by Korn Ferry analysts David Zes and Dana Landis provides a stalwart challenge to that mindset, confirming with a large body of data for the first time the direct relationship between leader self-awareness and organizational financial performance. Zes and Landis write in their white paper, A Better Return on Self-Awareness, that “public companies with a higher rate of return (ROR) also employ professionals who exhibit higher levels of self-awareness.” In a recent interview with Dana Landis, she told me “self-awarenss is not a soft skill, a nice-to-have. It’s playing out in your bottom line. This is about leadership effectiveness.” The researchers analyzed 6,977 self-assessments from professionals at 486 publicly traded companies to identify “blind spots”—disparities between self-reported skills and peer ratings. At the same time, they tracked stock performance. They pursued the questions: “Did the individual leaders see themselves the same way others saw them? How significant is a culture with widespread feedback?” The frequency of blind spots was measured against the ROR of those companies’ stock.
The analysis demonstrated that, on average:
- Poorly performing companies’ employees had 20 percent more blind spots than those working at financially strong companies.
- Poor-performing companies’ employees were 79 percent more likely to have low overall self-awareness than those at firms with robust ROR.
- Stock performance was tracked over thirty months, from July 2010 through January 2013. During that period the companies with the greater percentage of self-aware employees consistently outperformed those with a lower percentage. (Zes and Landis, 2013)
Landis shared that people with fewer blind spots had improved performance, as well as greater satisfaction. She emphasized the potential implications of what we can discern from this large body of data, the macro patterns and the micro learning. For example, what can we learn from the differentiators? How can we apply this learning in terms of fostering a culture that values a high level of self-awareness and feedback?
This research with its hard evidence makes it impossible to cast self-awareness aside as a soft skill any longer. Self-awareness is the most crucial developmental breakthrough for accelerating personal leadership growth and authenticity. Learning to pause to build self-awareness is an evolving process critical to leader success.
It is extremely valuable to know ourselves in order to leverage our potentialities:
> We need to know our strengths to assert them in the appropriate circumstances;
> We need to know our vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and distressing emotions, to check them and to prevent asserting them inappropriately and in non-value creating ways;
> When we are not self-aware, people around us have a better sense of our strengths and weaknesses than we do, and we lose credibility;
> When we are self-aware, we are more in touch with reality; people trust and respect us more.
St. Augustine reflected, “People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.” Knowing others is one indicator of emotional intelligence – but knowing ourselves is possibly the principal sign of wisdom.
While experience demonstrates that successful change begins with self-change, who would have thought that all sustained performance begins with self-awareness?
With this validated connection, the world of leadership and performance may never be the same.
Craig Camplone is Senior Partner for Global Talent Search at Korn Ferry International, and is a current Global Young Leader on the World Economic Forum (Geneva, Switzerland). Mr. Camplone has held Partner and Director positions with Korn Ferry, KKR and The Blackstone Group. He has his MBA from Northwestern University (Kellogg Graduate School of Management) and is on the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Opera (New York).