Share this episode with someone you think will benefit from it.

Leave a review at

self-awareness in business leadership

Photo Credit: © Can Stock Photo / ale_rizzo


Is self-awareness really necessary for business leaders? I mean, seriously, they’re large and in charge . . . isn’t that enough?

Self-awareness sounds like we need to break out the crystals and candles – right. Well, in this interview Prof. Sim Sitkin shares some eye-opening research that explodes those assumptions. Buckle your seatbelt!

Share this episode with someone you think will benefit from it.

Leave a review at

What You’ll Discover About Self-Awareness in Business Leadership (highlights & transcript):

Six Domains of Leadership* 3 Types of self-awareness in business leadership 

* How self-awareness makes you a better leader

* How to know if you have self-awareness in business leadership 

* How authenticity dovetails with self-awareness in business leadership 

* Going beyond 360 feedback surveys to gain more self-awareness in business leadership 

* The most underrated aspect of leadership 

* The #1 thing that gets in the way of self-awareness in business leadership 

* The most universally lowest rated area of leadership 

* How confidence enhances self-awareness in business leadership 

* AND much more. 

Is self-awareness really necessary for business leaders? I mean, seriously, they’re large and in charge. Isn’t that enough? Well, self-awareness, it sounds like we need to break out the crystals and candles, right? But when we come back, Professor Sim Sitkin will share some eye-opening research that explodes those assumptions. So, buckle your seatbelt and stay tuned.


This is Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, helping you see business issues hiding in plain view that matter to your bottom line.


Welcome to Business Confidential Now. I’m your host, Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, and today I’m honored and privileged to welcome Professor Sim Sitkin to the program. He’s the Michael W. Krzyzewski University Professor, a professor of management and public policy and faculty director at the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke University, as well as the Director of the Behavioral Science and Policy Center at Duke University.


His research focuses on the effects of leadership and organizational control on trust, risk-taking, experimentation, learning, and innovation. His most recent books are Organizational Control, The Six Domains of Leadership, and the Routledge Companion to Trust. It’s a special treat to have him here today. Welcome to Business Confidential now, Sim.


Thank you, Hanna. It’s a pleasure to be here.




Self-awareness sounds like such a soft skill. What exactly is self-awareness in business leadership?


Well, self-awareness, as you suggested in your introduction, is a little more complicated than most people think about it in terms of, but self-awareness basically can be broken into three parts. I have a doctoral student I’m working with, Danbee Chon, who’s doing her work on this, and what we’ve identified is there is a real difference between being aware of sort of your internal state, your beliefs, your values, your emotions, your physical feelings. That’s quite different.


And when you talk about sort of the touchy-feely version of self-awareness, it’s basically that, just getting in touch with yourself. But there are other elements to self-awareness. There’s self-awareness that has to do with your sort of appearance. Am I dressed appropriately? Am I carrying myself with confidence? Am I projecting that I know what I’m doing? Or do I still act in a way that’s really kind of conveying insecurity or second guessing myself?


The third area of self-awareness, which is also critically important for leadership, is social self-awareness. Am I aware of how other people see me? So I might be concerned about my own feelings, I might be concerned about what am I manifesting in my physicality and my behavior, and I’m also – I need to be concerned about whether others are seeing it as I feel it and as I’m acting it.


And so leadership does require that I have a sense of what’s going on for me, but even more importantly, it has to do with do I have an awareness of how I’m acting and do I have an awareness of how others are receiving it? And different groups can receive it very different ways. So leaders need to be more or less adaptive to different circumstances, and that requires a certain awareness of who you are, how you act, and how you’re seen by others.


I like the way you’ve broken that down into three pieces, but I guess it begs the question of like, well, don’t leaders have it? And if not, why not?




Well, first of all, if you ask anybody who has had any experience with leaders in their history, which is basically everybody, we all know people who aren’t very self-aware. They may not be effective leaders but they might be quite good technical experts or they might be very effective at designing management systems. They may even be very strong dictatorial authority figures.


That doesn’t mean they’re actually effectively leading people, and sometimes, being a very strong authority figure means you’re basically not paying any attention to how other people are seeing you. You’re just doing what you want, what you want to do. Technical expertise doesn’t really necessarily require these things, but it does if you want to use your technical expertise to influence others, which means you’re now leveraging your expertise to lead others by influencing them.


So I think leaders vary a great deal in how competent they are at these things, but also different circumstances require different kinds of awareness to different degrees. As I said, a technical expert, some of this may not be as relevant if they’re just passing technical reports on to somebody else who’s going to try to get them implemented. They just need to make sure their work is accurate. But if you want to lead others, if you want to really exercise influence over them, you’ve got to have a sense of yourself and you’ve got to have a sense of how you’re connecting with others.


Well, that definitely makes a lot of sense. There’s a special name for the kind of person you were describing who is not self-aware. We used to call him Captain Clueless.


 [Laughter] Yes, there’s also some conversation about narcissists who just focus on what’s in it for them or what their needs are. The issue is we’re in a very highly interdependent world and a highly connected world. So, it used to be that sometimes leaders could really be in a bubble and work with people who really knew them well and knew their foibles and could take that into account.


Well, we live in a podcast and YouTube world where you may do something aimed at one particular group that you know understands those things, but it’s going to be received and have to be communicated with groups who are more distant than that. So that means your awareness needs to be much more nuanced and multifaceted than it used to be.


Well, that’s a very interesting observation. So it sounds like, reading between the lines, that it’s more important than ever for leaders who want to be exercising influence to have self-awareness, and on all three of these levels that you’ve described, would that be fair?


I think so. Now, I do think that it’s important to recognize the point you raised right at the beginning about there’s this sort of feel good, touchy-feely side to some attention to self-awareness, and it can be taken too far in the sense that I mentioned. If you’re a narcissist, if you’re self-indulgent, if it’s all about sort of leading in order to compensate for your insecurities, that’s not constructive, and so self-awareness is not the point.




Just making yourself feel better is not the point. Leadership is about exercising influence over others in the pursuit of a goal. So your self-awareness makes you more confident, makes you more capable, and makes you more able to adapt to different needs of different groups or different circumstances. As you alluded to, the world we live in is more complicated than it used to be and it’s not going to get simpler, so leaders have to be able to handle those nuances and think about how they project themselves given that.




Well, I would bet that there are some people listening who are like, “Oh, I have self-awareness. I got this,” but how do we know, for those of us that are maybe a little bit more skeptical, that we have enough self-awareness? The other related question is, is self-awareness a continuum? I mean, you talk about these three types of self-awareness. Okay, good, check that box. But with any single one of them or maybe the three combined, is there a continuum where you have a little but maybe not enough and what is enough?


Yes. So, I don’t think there’s a definitive answer at this point. Maybe someday there would be to – there is a threshold and above that, you’re in good shape, or that you’re not, or that there is even a single answer to that question for different people. But I do think that, for example, we all are going to be better or worse if you take those three buckets. I may be really good at picking up how other people are seeing me, but I’ve sort of lost touch with my own emotions.


When you hear people talking about how they really couldn’t be themselves at work, the danger if that goes on for too long is you lose that sense of internal self-awareness. You may have very strong social self-awareness because you’re really concerned and attentive to how others see you, but you may lose a sense of your own emotions, your own beliefs or your values even. So we can be stronger in one area and weaker in another, and over time, those can get out of whack in serious ways.


The other thing is we may be more or less self-aware in different circumstances. I mean, just think about a time when you maybe went to a different country or you moved in a different social circle than you were familiar with, or you’re in a work context and you walk into a meeting and suddenly you realize everybody in the room is different from you and there seem to be different norms operating. You suddenly become self-aware, but you may not know how to judge how others…


…see you. Or you may be tightening up and not realize you’re not projecting a kind of comfortable confidence that you normally might project. So, there are a lot of varieties of this, and when you ask how does someone know, there is a large body of research, mostly in psychology, that has shown that we are not very accurate perceivers of ourselves, that there is a gap between how others see us and how we see ourselves. So one of the things that I do with students and executives that I work with is we use 360 feedback surveys so that they can see how there are discrepancies between how they see themselves and how others might see them.


And they may see themselves exactly the same way, say, their direct reports see them, but they see themselves differently than their boss or their peers see them. So, part of the question is looking in the mirror is helpful, but having others give you the feedback that the mirror is providing can be even more helpful because you’re getting different lenses on what your actions look like to others.


They may be able to give you an impartial description of something about where you don’t realize you’re intimidating to people, but because you’re six foot six and you have a kind of aggressive way of standing and talking, you’re just sharing ideas with people but they find it more like an attack or an attempt at domination. Well, you need to be aware of that, what your behavior is, as well as how others are seeing it.




Interesting. I’d like to come back to a point that you mentioned a minute or so ago about the authenticity factor, when you said people may not feel like they can bring their authentic self to work, and that could be whether in a contributor role or a leadership role or management role. I mean, somehow they feel like, “Heck, I can’t be myself.”


That’s gotten a lot of attention in the last few years as people talk more about diversity and equity and inclusion. So, when you’re talking about self-awareness, how is it that you feel people can’t be themselves when they come into these situations?


Well, I think it would be naive to think that everybody is treated equally in situations and that everybody’s actual attributes are valued in all situations. Just ask anybody in a minority group and that will, you know, or women walking into a board meeting that is all men except for one woman. How is their voice going to be seen and heard? How do, say, they make sure that what they have to contribute is actually recognized now?


So, authenticity is sometimes challenged by the situation or by others in the group, and there’s some terrific work on this, research on this that goes back many years and the point is, when you can’t be authentic at work, it can have really damaging effects not only on your career but also on your psyche over time.


The flipside of that is a colleague and friend of mine, Jeff Pfeffer from Stanford, has made the point, which is a little controversial, that authenticity is overrated and that one of the things leaders need to do is to recognize being authentic does not mean you have to sort of let your guts spill out wherever you are or that it’s required for a leader to be authentic. People don’t want to know everything about you, but they do want to know who you are, what you stand for, what your capabilities are, what your style is…


…if you want them to follow you. You can’t pursue that kind of authenticity, though, in a naive way and ignore discrimination in the workplace, bias in the workplace. So, what ends up happening is, and this is where self-awareness comes in again, it’s knowing myself well enough and knowing where I have to adapt to the circumstances without giving up my sense of identity, my felt authenticity.


I may have to tailor how I express that to the circumstances. If I have to do it too much, then maybe those aren’t the right circumstances for me to be in because I really – what they’re looking for is an image of me but not the actual me.


So I think there is this fine line there between, on one hand, helping those you lead recognize who you are in an authentic way so you’re not manipulating them, but on the other hand, to not do it with a kind of naivety that ignores who I am may not be fully recognized in this environment given my demographic attributes, and so therefore I’ve got to adjust and handle things in a way that will fit…


…and then I can build that sort of personal credit, and over time I can let myself out more. But if you wait too long, it becomes very difficult and that’s probably not a healthy environment to be in.




Understood, understood. As far as business leaders who are interested in gaining more self-awareness, what do you recommend that they could do besides the 360?


Well, first of all, there’s a dramatically increased interest in recent years in having executive coaching available for executives, and I think that’s a really good thing. It’s kind of like therapy is a good thing for people in general because it gives you a little more self-awareness and it gives you someone who doesn’t have a horse in the race.


They’re in a position to give you some honest, tough feedback. I think that’s true with executive coaches as well. There are careers that get derailed because executives are not aware enough of who they are and what they could do to become stronger in various areas. So I think it’s very hard in isolation.


It’s not like you can go read a book typically, and all of a sudden you have the revelation and you see where your strengths and weaknesses are and what you need to do and where you’re fooling yourself about what you’re doing or how it’s being seen. So I think it’s very useful. Now do you need a, in a sense, professional, a therapist, a coach or whatever? No, you don’t. You could have a mentor at work. You could have peers or even subordinates that you trust at work.


Or you can have a friend who knows you well and can give you that kind of feedback. But one of the important things I think today too with the challenges that leaders face is, I like to say leadership is not a solo sport, it’s a team sport, and even the best leaders are not even the best leaders. The best leaders I know are constantly looking for ways that they can improve, and others might think, “Oh my God, this person is a rock star in terms of leadership. What do they need to improve for?”


The reason they’re so good is they have always been looking for people who can give them feedback, ways that they can get information that changes their mind about things, that changes how they see things. As a result, they’ve become really, really strong leaders. It’s not necessarily because they started out that way. Leadership, effective leadership can be a set of learned skills and perspectives, but doing it solo is really, really hard. The odds are not very good. I think doing it with others and with feedback from others is critical.


And of course, that’s going to require open-mindedness. [Laughter]




It sure does. Yes, I mean, I think one of the most underrated aspects of leadership, not just in writing about it but in our society in general, generally is the importance of curiosity and the importance of learning that none of us is smart enough, that we’re going to always know the right answer and that we’re never going to get things wrong and that we’re never going to have to update or adapt…


…and that there aren’t people we can learn from. That’s not true for any of us. So, in a world that we live in today, leaders really need to be searching, searching for that. In fact, a good friend of mine who was a very senior person in the US government, when he got into his role, one of the first things he did was to appoint staff whose job was to figure out what he needed to be educated about. Who did he need to talk to, what did he need to read?


What were the things that were coming up that weren’t a problem today but might be a problem in three months, six months, a year or whatever that he was not necessarily up to speed on? He wanted to all the time have an agenda of what he was learning next, and he always set aside time for that. That’s unusual, but that’s an example of the best leaders that I’ve met.




That’s a wonderful example. Thank you for sharing that. In the time that we have left, what do you think gets in the way of self-awareness in business leadership?


Well, I think one thing that gets in the way of self-awareness is constantly filling your calendar. Self-awareness requires a certain amount of reflection, and we tend not to adequately value that. The second thing I think is to recognize that I think it’s driven a bit by insecurity, that because the challenges leaders face are complicated, that a lot of times even the best leaders, the most knowledgeable people feel a little bit insecure when they’re wading into the water about a particularly complex problem.


When people feel insecure, they tend to flex their muscles more, they tend to make themselves less vulnerable. They feel like, “I need to really show that I’m always on top of things and I’m the strong one in the room.” The idea that empowering others diminishes my power I think is wrong. If I’m confident enough, I can make it about helping others be more effective. I can make it about helping them be able to do things without needing me. That requires a certain amount of confidence.




One of the areas of leadership that we’ve studied to our amazement was it has been universally the lowest rated area of leadership, and this is across many countries around the world, different industries, different levels from the CEO down to new supervisors.


Every group we’ve worked with, the area that is rated the worst in terms of their performance, not in terms of importance, is what we call contextual leadership, which is the role of the leader in making sense of the world for those they’re leading. Well, how can I assume I know everything so I can make sense of it for you? I need a bunch of people to help me do that, number one.


Number two, if I’m going to give you my insights about how to make sense of the world, I’m actually giving up a certain amount of power because you don’t have to come to me anymore for that, I’ve helped you understand it.




So, again, it comes back to another one of these issues that I think is critical, is not reacting out of insecurity and having to demonstrate your power and your influence and stature and so forth, but rather to feel confident enough that you can make yourself vulnerable and invite others in to help you solve the problem. That’s going to enhance your self-awareness, and it’s going to encourage them to give you more feedback when you need it.


And definitely a whole lot more employee engagement. Those are all really valuable things that an organization would definitely want to encourage in their leaders, and I hope they’re listening and take your advice then [Laughter].


[Laughter] Yes. Well, to your point about openness, being open and flexible is not a sign of weakness, it’s actually a sign of strength because if I have the power, I can always in the end let the hammer come down and say, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do, and this is – just go and do it.” But why would I want to start with that point?


Why wouldn’t I want to surround myself with people? I always ask this question, why would I always want to surround myself with people who aren’t as smart and good as I am? I want to surround myself with people who are smarter, who know things that I don’t know, because that makes us all better. Then my job is just to try to facilitate that. It’s not that I don’t bring something to the party, but I want to be at a party with other people who bring something to the party and then I should try to bring that out.


Well, those are definitely words to live by, but I’m sure some of our listeners – I know in my own personal experience, I haven’t always worked for bosses that thought that way. If anything, they feel threatened. Maybe their calendar is too full and so it’s a lot faster for them to make a decision rather than encourage feedback. But then there comes a point where it’s like, “How come nobody’s talking in the meeting?” Like, “Where is everybody? What’s going on?” It’s like, “Hey, they’re waiting for you.” [Laughter]




Right. Yes, and I think there is a difference between being decisive and being perceptive. I think there’s a difference between being willing to let the buck stop here and feeling like it always has to stop here. The better a leader you are, I think the less you’re going to be needed. That requires a certain amount of security and confidence to approach things that way.


It requires a tremendous amount. Depending on who they’re reporting to, if the top of the food chain is signaling that I could fire you tomorrow, so-and-so can do better, can do your job better than you, then that just feeds somebody’s insecurity which isn’t helpful. So, there’s a domino effect. Sim, we could talk for hours and maybe one day we’ll have the opportunity to do this… [Laughter]


…but I really thank you so much for your time, for sharing your thoughts and insights about self-awareness in business leadership, because I think it’s an underrated topic that more folks need to think about it and so I’m delighted that we’ve been able to devote some time to this. If you’re listening and want to learn more about Professor Sim Sitkin’s fascinating work…


…his contact information is going to be found in the show notes at If you know someone who could benefit from some self-awareness in business leadership role, please tell them about Professor Sitkin, this podcast episode. Share the link, leave a positive review so others can find out about it too to improve the workplace.


You could do that review on your podcast app or at because this is Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner.


Thank you for listening. Have a great day and an even better tomorrow.

Best Moments

3 Types of Self-Awareness You Need in Business Leadership

How More Self-Awareness Makes You a More Effective Leader

How Courageously Clearing Your Calendar Can Lead to More Leadership Self-Awareness

Share this episode with someone you think will benefit from it.

Leave a review at

Guest: Prof. Sim Sitkin

Prof. Sim Sitkin

Sim B. Sitkin is Michael W. Krzyzewski University Professor, Professor of Management and Public Policy, Faculty Director – Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, and Director – Behavioral Science and Policy Center at Duke University.

He is a Fellow of the Academy of Management, the Society for Organizational Behavior, the Society for Organizational Learning, and the International Network for Trust Research.  

He is Co-Founder and Co-President of the Behavioral Science and Policy Association and President of Delta Leadership, Inc

His research focuses on the effects of leadership and organizational control on trust, risk-taking, experimentation, learning, and innovation.

His most recent books are Organizational Control, The Six Domains of Leadership and The Routledge Companion to Trust.


Related Resources:

Contact Prof. Sitkin and connect with him on LinkedIn, and through the Delta Leadership page on LinkedIn

Join, Rate and Review:


Rating and reviewing the show helps us grow our audience and allows us to bring you more of the rich information you need to succeed from our high powered guests. Leave a review at

Joining the Business Confidential Now family is easy and lets you have instant access to the latest tactics, strategies and tips to make your business more successful.

Follow on your favorite podcast app here as well as on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Download ♥ Follow  Listen  Learn  Share  Review Comment  Enjoy

Ask Questions or Recommend a Topic/ Guest:

  • Use our convenient Get in Touch form
  • OR e-mail feedback(at)


This post may contain links to products to products on with which I have an affiliate relationship. I may receive commissions or bonuses from your actions on such links, AT NO ADDITIONAL COST TO YOU.

Also published on Medium.