The Importance of Self-Awareness: From Socrates to Goleman
At TWP we base our leadership development and coaching work in self-awareness.
When we talk about this concept, we are often faced with blank looks and questions such as: “OK, but what will my people actually learn?” In this article we will explore what self-awareness actually is and why it is the key to personal effectiveness and outstanding results.
From the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates, through such luminary thinkers as William Shakespeare, Abraham Maslow, Confucius, Carl Jung and right up to present-day author Daniel Goleman, the concept of self-awareness has been seen as fundamental in the pursuit of excellence.
The ancient Greeks had a word for the excellence of which they spoke: Arete. What they meant by this was ‘striving to reach your highest potential through the process of self-actualisation.’
“The unexamined life is not worth living… know thyself.”
Socrates, 399 BC
Ancient Greek Philosopher
Socrates’ message was that, unless you are willing to take an honest look at how you have been living your life and the results you have been creating, you are doomed to repeat the same results over and over again, with no prospect of progress or growth.
“He who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it”
George Santayana. 1905
Spanish born US Philosopher; The Life of Reason.
This all makes perfect sense. However, there are typically two things that get in the way of our developing our self-awareness. First, people often think that they already have a high level of self-awareness. For the most part, however, most people have a very low level of self-awareness.
As we go through life we develop patterns of action, thoughts, opinions and beliefs that become so habitual that they disappear from our view. It is like wearing a pair of spectacles: because they are always there, we forget how they influence what we see.
These habitual ways of acting, thinking and believing have often proved effective for us in the past and so we become more and more certain that they are right and we become less and less inclined to examine them. They make so much sense to us that even when they prove to be ineffective in a situation we find reasons to explain the results away, often by blaming others or making excuses.
Because we never examine them, they slip further and further out of our sight and they simply become “the way things are”. They form the context of our life, shaping everything we say or do. Unseen but all-pervasive.
We become like an iceberg.
When we consider all our beliefs, attitudes and opinions we are only aware of a small percentage of the total. Most have slipped out of our sight, below our “waterline”. Because this is where most of our beliefs, etc., reside, this is where the driving force of most of our actions is based. Our actions are driven by things of which we are no longer conscious. Our beliefs, formed in the past, start making choices for us and determining our actions in the present. The choices that they make for us are not always the most effective in the current situation.
This is why we can go through life feeling we are on a treadmill and repeating the same patterns over and over again.
Another factor that gets in the way of developing self-awareness is our everyday routine: there is always something left on the to-do list. The pace of life is speeding up all the time and in order to examine that life, we are worried that we will have to stop and take time out of our busy schedules. And this is time we think that we do not have.
“If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by our projects, our uncertainty, our craving, how can we have the time to stop and look deeply into our own situation?”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Contemporary Buddhist Philosopher
Taking time to examine your life is similar to taking a pit stop in a Formula 1 race. The objective is to win the race, but to do that the driver knows he needs to come off the track for a short period to get feedback from those who have been observing him and make any necessary changes.
In order to further our self-awareness, it helps to work with someone else, just as the driver does at the pit stop. We are not in a good position to observe ourselves. We may think we are, but we are too close. Those habits are too ingrained and too familiar for us to see them.
Socrates knew this. His process of self-examination included a process called “Socratic dialogue” which involved discussion with a highly skilled and trusted confidant.
This is the role that the TWP trainer or coach plays in the process.
All the great thinkers are alluding to this process of examination when they speak of self-awareness.
Today, current thinker Daniel Goleman refers to the same thing in much of his work, most notably in his ground-breaking book “Emotional Intelligence” and his various articles on leadership such as “What Makes a Leader” published in HBR in 2001.
The number one component that Goleman identifies in Emotional Intelligence (EI) is self awareness:
“EI begins with this trait (self awareness). People with a high degree of self-awareness know their weaknesses and are not afraid to talk about them. Someone who understands that he works poorly under tight deadlines, for example, will work hard to plan his time carefully and will let his colleagues know why. Many executives looking for potential leaders mistake such candour for ‘wimpiness’
“Self-awareness is defined as the ability to recognize and understand one’s moods, emotions and drives, as well as their effect on others”
21st Century Author
Self-awareness is the foundation upon which all growth and development is built. Only when your leaders have developed a high sense of self-awareness will they be able to free themselves from their unconscious habits and begin to rediscover the ability to make conscious choices based on the needs of the situation they face.
It is our belief that a company can only grow when its people are growing, too. In order for growth to be present, the people need to know from where they start. It is like any journey. You need to know where you are going but also from where you are setting out. Not where you think you are, but where you really are.
This is what a TWP Leadership Development initiative can provide.
“The giving up of personality traits, well-established patterns of behaviour, ideologies, and even whole life styles … these are major forms of giving up that are required if one is to travel very far on the journey of life.”
M. Scott Peck
US psychiatrist and author
Senior Trainer and PCC Executive Coach