Roger Delves: Understand yourself to become a better leader
Purposeful self-reflection is an invaluable part of any leadership toolkit, writes Roger Delves.
I’m a leader. I make decisions. What I choose to consider when I make those decisions helps to define me as a leader. But how aware am I of what I bring to decision-making? If I were more self-aware, if I understood myself better, would I make different, better decisions?
Moral Particularity and Leadership
Alasdair MacIntyre, the great modern-day moral and political philosopher, has a concept he calls moral particularity. He says we are all someone’s son or daughter, cousin or uncle. We come from somewhere, we belong to guilds, professions, tribes, clans, nations, faiths, families. We take from these places to which we belong a variety of debts, inheritances, rights and obligations. These constitute the given of our lives – our moral particularity. So moral particularity is deeply personal, deeply ingrained, often something we carry unconsciously more than consciously.
However, because our moral particularity colours our decision-making, we cannot as leaders afford to leave it unexamined in our unconscious. We must examine the debts, inheritances, rights and obligations and decide how many of them are still appropriate for us to carry, still things we need and ought to pay attention to.
“As a leader, I will lead better unladen by baggage.”
A large part of moral particularity is baggage. The critical question to ask of baggage is this: do I still need to carry it? Is it still important to who I am now that I was born a particular colour or gender, or into a particular faith, with a specific sexual orientation or on the soil of a specific nation? Do the expectations placed on me as an emerging young adult, by myself and by others, still need to weigh me down? Do relationships – failed or successful, personal or professional – that belong to my youth still need to colour my mature decision-making?
As a leader, I will lead better unladen by baggage. I will make better decisions if those decisions are made in my conscious mind and are not unwittingly swayed by unconscious bias. My decisions will be more transparent to those who follow me, will seem more congruent with who I am, less contingent on the situation alone.
Emotional Intelligence and Moral Particularity
Updating my moral particularity by deciding what debts, inheritances, rights and obligations will influence me now can be an uplifting and life enhancing experience. At the centre of such an updating is the EQ competence of self-awareness.
Being self-aware means being confident that our behaviours and actions reflect our beliefs and values, rather than, for example, a set of required or rewarded behaviours that other people or situations demand from us. The emotionally intelligent, self-aware individual therefore has a strong grasp on their personal beliefs and values – their moral particularity.
Being self-aware means focusing attention on ourselves, measuring how we behave against what we believe, being objective evaluators of ourselves. We are not overtly critical or unrealistically hopeful. We understand our strengths, weaknesses, needs, yardsticks and red lines. Understanding ourselves, we are confident that we know our limitations and our potential.
“As leaders, we will appear more authentic if we can manage ourselves away from subjective, often unconscious influence and towards a space in which we can be seen to be our true selves.”
Our moral particularity interferes with our objectivity because it brings a strong subjective element to anything we do. That’s why it is so important that our moral particularity is updated, relevant to the person we want to be, and not distorted by baggage we should no longer be carrying. It is too much to ask that we constantly behave rationally and unemotionally. But by being actively aware of our emotional drivers, we can become better able to know and understand when they are influencing our decision-making, and we can then either allow or disallow this through an act of emotional self-management.
As leaders, we will appear more authentic, more determinedly true to our real selves if we can manage ourselves away from subjective, often unconscious influence and towards an objective, adult, self-controlled space in which we can be seen to be our true selves. The reassurance that team members get from seeing leaders behave in this way is important, and contributes to high performance.
The Importance of Purposeful Reflection
It is apparent that key to self-awareness is reflection, and the time to reflect purposefully. The more we reflect on ourselves, the more self-conscious and self-critical we become. It is through reflection that we can review and update our moral particularity. Through reflection we come to better understand our emotions, we explore and understand what we are good at doing, where we are weak or prey to temptation or under skilled. We learn what really matters to us, not just what we think should matter or what we have been taught matters.
Reflection is not meditation. It is the active assessment of why and how. Purposeful reflection leads to decisions around what needs to change. For example, an important part of my moral particularity will be my values. When I reflect purposefully on my values, I reflect on whether I feel I have a clear and established set of values.
Can I name them? Why do I have them?
I reflect on whether these values are mine or inherited. I reflect on whether they are the right values for the leader I aspire to be. I reflect on whether I live these values consistently as a leader. If not, why do I struggle to do so? I reflect on what the right values might be for the leader I want to be. I reflect on how I might need to change to live these right values.
The Power of Understanding
Whatever I am doing as a leader – making decisions, building relationships, dealing with conflict, inspiring and motivating, influencing and persuading, advocating, listening, coaching – I will do it better if I understand myself better.
Leaders will simply always benefit from a deep, honest and accurate understanding of themselves. Personal understanding helps me to be a better leader, an individual whom it is easier to follow, easier to trust and easier to commit to.
- Roger Delves MA (Oxon) FRCA is an IMI Associate faculty member and has worked with numerous clients across our Customised Solutions programmes. He has also delivered a module on the Professional Diploma in Organisational Behaviour, awarded by UCC. He is a Professor of Leadership Practice and Associate Dean of Faculty on the Ashridge campus of Hult International Business School.