Why Knowing Yourself Is Essential To Leadership

Winston Churchill Image

In my study of leadership, I have discovered a number of insights from successful leaders. I have been inspired by Churchill’s determination, writing and his ability to recover from disappointments. In addition, I have also learned the vital role of introspection in leadership. Without self-knowledge and understanding, one’s leadership capabilities will hamstrung by blind spots and slow growth. In this post, I will discuss four methods leaders can use to better understand themselves. Armed with this insight, you will be able to grow your leadership further.

DISC Profile: An Excellent Model To Understand Your Communication Style

I discovered the DISC profile after hearing it mentioned in several outstanding podcasts produced by Manager Tools (e.g. First Steps With DISC). I find this model particularly helpful in understanding different approaches to communication style. Here is a high level overview of the four dimensions of the model and their strengths. If you are curious to receive your own customized DISC profile, I recommend the Manager Tools DISC profile (that’s what I used myself). When I last took the profile, my classical pattern was “Objective Thinker.” I scored high on the C and S qualities.

Note: I am quoting from the “DISC Classic 2.0” for my quoted definitions below.

D: Dominance

“Emphasis is on shaping the environment by overcoming opposition to accomplish results. This person’s tendencies include making quick decisions, getting immediate results and solving problems.”

I: Influence

“Emphasis is on shaping the environment by influencing or persuading others. This person’s tendencies include contact people, entertaining people, and generating enthusiasm.”

S: Steadiness

Emphasis is on cooperating with others within existing circumstances to carry out the task. This person’s tendencies include demonstrating patience, developing specialized skills and helping others.

C: Conscientiousness

Those who are strong in Conscientiousness (“high C’s”) like to be precise and keep their focus on key details while working in an environment that values quality and accuracy. High C’s like to be accurate and orderly, and they make decisions in an analytical way. They prefer to control factors that affect their performance and seek opportunities to demonstrate their expertise. They also like to be recognized for their skills and accomplishments.

I will note that all styles are effective; it is simply a question of understanding your strengths and blind spots. For example, a person with a high D tendency may have challenges (i.e. “Bull in the China shop”) when working in organizations that rely on cooperation. In contrast, a high C may have problems due to relying on logic and downplaying other motivation factors.

The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator: A Classic Resource

The Myers-Briggs is one of the most popular and widely used approaches to understanding personality and one’s tendencies. Recently, I used 16Personalities.com to generate my profile (a free service: paid services also exist for those who are interested in greater depth and advice). My profile for Myers-Briggs is the The Logistician (i.e. “ISTJ). I will note with delight that researchers suspect that George Washington had the same profile as me!

Advantages of Myers-Briggs:

It is a widely used indicator that many millions of people have used (a 2012 article in the Washington Post reports two million people take the test each year). The test is also reasonably robust: the Center for Applications of Psychological Type found that people come out with the same results 75-90% of the time on taking the test again. I also find it interesting that many analysts and writers have developed detailed support materials and consulting to help you make the best use of your profile.

Disadvantages of Myers-Briggs:

The first weakness to the approach is the idea that the world’s population can be simplified into less than twenty categories. In addition, the profile is over fifty years old and it may not agree with the latest research in psychology and related fields. Finally, the very heavy use of the profile mean that some may discuss the tool as “old news.”

In summary, I view the type indicator as helpful for leaders though not definitive. For example, the indicator may suggest some types are better at relating to people. In alignment with Manager Tools and others in this space, I do not view this types as destiny. Instead, this approach simply shows that you may have to work harder in certain situations to be effective.

The Biography Test: Who Inspires You?

As a life long student of history, I have read many biographies. Over the past few years, I have read great biographies of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John A. MacDonald, and Winston Churchill. A highly skilled biographer brings history to life in a compelling way. For example, I found it interesting to learn that Churchill designed his own self-education program while stationed as a soldier in India. In various ways, all of the people I have mentioned above inspire me in different ways. They are also outstanding leaders that achieved a great deal with different strengths (e.g. Churchill’s strength in public speaking and writing, Washington’s strength in quiet resolution under stress and John A. MacDonald’s abilities to forge Canada.

Extraordinary Canadians Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine Robt Baldwin By John Ralston Saul

Extraordinary Canadians Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine Robt Baldwin
By John Ralston Saul

Of course, the biography test will only help you if you actively read about people, past and present, who have changed the world. While I have recently been enjoying long biographies, there is much to be gained from shorter books as well. For example, the Extraordinary Canadians series edited by John Ralston Saul provides biographies of 200 pages or so of the people who shaped Canada.

Questions to ask in reading a biography to build your self-knowledge and leadership:

1. How would I have responded to the challenges this person faced?

2. How did this person respond to their critics and enemies?

3. What blind spots held back this person from achieving even more?

4. What stories and specific incidents from this person’s life should I remember to inspire myself and others? (e.g. the Art of Manliness website has published an outstanding series based on Winston Churchill)

5. What quotes should I note from this person’s letters, books and writings that inspire me or cause me to think in new ways?

 Whether you use formal personality tests, reading from the world’s great biographies or other modes of reflection, it pays to think through your approach to leadership.

Question for the comments:

What leader from history has inspired you to think about leadership in new ways (or change your leadership approach?


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