Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a Path to Effective Leadership: A Multi-Part Series, Part 3

Brad Morgan
Director, Bettye B. Lewis Career Center
University of Tennessee College of Law

“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly: “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

It is important to note that the literature firmly establishes that leadership skills are learned and “that people can learn, grow and change, and that self-awareness is both the cornerstone for individual development and the foundation for group and organizational success.” Moreover, the foundation of ethical leadership traits is “self-knowledge[.]” Therefore, it is important to examine how one develops self-awareness. Fortunately, the literature offers profound and actionable guidance on this important question.

Dr. Ronald Heifetz—founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School—urges a life-long habit of self-examination and “reflection on daily actions, successes and failures, of ourselves and others.” He also recommends that a leader find others who will give honest feedback as a hedge against self-deception, as well as a sanctuary where a person can reflect. The need to find individuals that will provide honest feedback cannot be understated. As one leader put it, “as soon as I [entered my role], suddenly all my jokes were funny.” Leaders must identify and rely upon individuals in their lives that will provide them with honest feedback.

Returning to the topics of servant leadership and authentic leadership, many authors have suggested that although “self-knowledge and the other attitudes and virtues of a servant leader (stewardship, empathy, and commitment to the holistic growth of others) cannot be taught in the same way as [classroom] knowledge . . . there is strong evidence that peer discussion of moral dilemmas and role-taking opportunities that compel perspective taking and induce cognitive disequilibrium ‘press students to build new understandings that propel them forward to increasingly adequate and more complex moral reasoning and perspective taking.’”

Conclusions from the 2007 quantitative study of Byrne, Dominick, Smither & Reilly include that leaders that possess self-awareness engage in the following behaviors:
• Making feedback seeking part of their regular routine.
• Schedule time for reflection.
• Identify key people in your life with whom you feel safe sharing personal information about yourself.

The Harvard Business Review often echoes these suggestions—especially when it comes to setting aside specific time for reflection and proactively seeking input from trusted sources. Through these processes leaders may gain insight into what experiences and/or skill sets that they yet lack, and how they can obtain the same.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.”

Professionals serve—to greater or lesser extents—as leaders, and have the opportunity to serve as effectively; that much is clear. The benefits of preparing ourselves and future professionals to be effective leaders is, at the very least, worthy of serious consideration. Leadership skills can be taught. Leadership skills can be learned; including the foundational leadership skill of self-awareness. As we engage in evaluating and implementing self-awareness and self-knowledge, we—and our colleagues—like Alice, will not go back to where we’ve been because we will be different people—for the better.

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