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Self-Awareness and Coachability: The Two Most Important Leadership Traits

The strongest leaders know what they’re good at and what they’re not, and they don’t get bent out of shape by constructive criticism. Quint Studer explains how to nurture these qualities in yourself and your team – and why it can transform your company.

Quint Studer likes to talk about an interesting conversation he had with a venture capitalist. They were discussing the qualities the VC looks for when thinking of buying a company. Studer was expecting to hear words like “profitability” and “growth potential.” But instead, the VC put self-awareness and coachability at the top of the list.

“I was surprised but probably shouldn’t have been,” says Studer, author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive. “I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders – in hospitals, on baseball fields, in government offices, in hotels, stores, and restaurants – and have seen that organizations that focus on these two qualities tend to be strong, innovative, and profitable.”

It makes sense. Today’s business environment requires us to adapt quickly and relentlessly. That means leaders must not only be great at what they do, they also have to be great learners. This mindset – which is connected to humility – requires that leaders “know what they don’t know” and be willing to work on their shortcomings.

“Self-awareness and coachability are connected,” says Studer. “When we know what we need to improve on, we’re more likely to seek the help of others who can coach us. Once we seek that help, we become even more self-aware. It’s a cycle that builds on itself.”

He adds that when these two qualities become part of your company’s culture, it’s easier to engage and motivate employees. High performers will be drawn to you (and are more likely to stick around). Productivity will soar.

Here are a few tips for becoming more self-aware and coachable:

Know that getting better starts on the inside. It’s not “them”; it’s you. ”When I was younger, I lived in the world of ‘if only,’“ says Studer.

“If only I had gone to this school, majored in this, grown up rich, gotten the breaks, or been more appreciated, then my life would be better. The problem was always them. Then, at 31, I crashed emotionally. I sought professional help and found other resources to learn from. I soon discovered the problem was not them; it was me and my expectations. I figured out that I will struggle until I am better on the inside.”

Ask for feedback (and really listen). Talk to your boss, to other leaders, to employees, to friends and family members. Ask what they see as your strengths and weaknesses. How do they think you performed on a recent project? What might you have done better?

Don’t shoot the messenger. When you receive negative feedback, practice listening without reacting. If you feel yourself getting upset, don’t lash out. Process the information and sit with it a while before deciding whether it’s valid. Often you’ll have to admit it is. It’s hard to hear negative truths about ourselves, but, with practice, we can become more open to it.

Have a “beginner’s mind-set.” People who practice “beginner’s mind” rather than always thinking they are going to be a guru or expert tend to do better in teams. Always be ready and willing to participate, serve, and share your best insights. You will learn a lot more. For example, check your attitude before you go to a meeting. Always come into the group with the intention of learning something. Rather than having an attitude of This isn’t relevant to me or This is not what I’m interested in, ask yourself, How could this apply to me? How could this be useful for me now – and if not now, later?

Keep an accountability journal. Write down your goals and plans and regularly update what you’re doing to move toward them. Track your progress over time. Are you doing what you set out to do? If not, what might be holding you back? Exploring these issues in writing can lead to startling insights on your strengths and weaknesses.

Seize every opportunity to develop yourself. ”While most entrepreneurs are great at the core ‘skill’ their venture is built on – cooking, accounting, practicing law – they haven’t typically mastered the skills it takes to run a business,” says Studer. “They need training in basics like hiring, firing, creating revenue streams, etc. I find the most successful small business owners are those who are self-aware enough to know what they don’t know and take advantage of resources that can help.”

Hire people who are smarter than you. Make sure they’re willing to challenge you (and that you’re open to being challenged). Being surrounded by a bunch of “yes men” and “yes women” isn’t going to help you grow.

Get a mentor; be a mentor (or do both). Mentoring is powerful. Whether you have a mentor or you mentor someone else, this relationship can spark tremendous growth in both parties. Great mentors know that they are not finished products, and often they learn as much from the mentee as the mentee learns from them.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind. We tend to think of strong leaders as being quick, decisive, and unwavering in their decision-making. Most of the time, they are praised for being consistent, and their conviction is seen as a source of comfort and reassurance for their team. On the other hand, leaders who change their mind or embrace a new way of thinking about something are seen as “flip-floppers” and derided for being wishy-washy or inconsistent.

The reality is that leaders who are open to learning new information and adapting their thinking accordingly are ultimately more successful. Changing your mind is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that you are able to learn and grow in real time.

Good leaders never tie themselves too tightly to their first conclusion. Instead, they have the courage to admit they might have been wrong and the flexibility to course correct as new information becomes available.

There is no finish line in learning. "There are always things to learn,” says Studer. “I guess I assumed at one time that someday I would know enough. That’s just not true. There is always more to learn, and teachers present themselves in many different ways. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Remaining teachable is key.”

“Becoming self-aware and coachable doesn’t mean striving for perfection,” concludes Studer. “None of us will ever be perfect. It does mean identifying worst flaws that hold us back and sincerely working to repair them. It means knowing which tasks to delegate, and when to seek the advice of experts. It means realizing more each day just how much we don’t know. This is a journey that we’ll never finish. Our main job as a leader is to make sure that we’re always headed in the right direction on the path.”

About the Author: Quint Studer is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook and a lifelong businessman, entrepreneur, and student of leadership. To learn more, please visit www.thebusyleadershandbook.com.

About the Book: The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive (Wiley, October 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-57664-8, $28.00) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and direct from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797. For more information, please visit the book’s page at www.wiley.com.

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