Rudderless, Clueless or Blind: the science of self-awareness

Much has been written about leadership, but have you ever stopped to think about the true purpose of a leader? Is the leader’s primary purpose to set the vision and strategy? To guide? To direct? To motivate? To listen? To talk? To maintain? To create? To drive the organization to achieve its goals? One could make a case for one or more of those purposes. Optimal leadership is a combination of all of those activities. The best leaders are those who have a unique ability to direct attention to the right areas at the right time. The purpose of leadership can be related in one simple word: focus.

Focus is often defined as a center of activity, attraction or attention with the filtering or elimination of distractions. Recent neuroscience research actually shows that the strongest leaders have the ability to change focus, depending upon the situation and the objective. Focus is generated from a triad of awareness – self-focus, people focus, and environment focus.

The studies have shown that the most successful leaders are those who listen to their inner voice – their gut. These successful leaders have a high degree of self-awareness and in listening to their inner voice, are able to draw upon different aspects of their thinking and experience to make better decisions. Greater degrees of self-awareness also leads to greater emotional intelligence.

The concept of emotional intelligence, first introduced in the 1960s, was popularized by Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence” published in 1995. Emotional intelligence is the combination of interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities (the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of others balanced with the capacity to understand and appreciate one’s own feelings, fears, and motivations).

Listening to one’s inner voice or trusting one’s gut is not just instinct – it’s actually grounded in science. Studies have shown that gut feelings are actually messages from the insula and the amygdala. The insula or insular cortex, about the size of a prune, is located deep within the inner crevices of our brains. The insula is primarily tasked with mapping visceral states associated with emotional experience that ultimately gives rise to conscious feelings (aka inner voice). The almond-shaped amygdala located on both sides of our brains lead the way in processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions.

Self-awareness is not only focusing on impressions of ourselves, but also combining experiences across time. In numerous studies, those with higher levels of emotional intelligence or self-awareness made better decisions and were more successful.

Greater self-awareness comes from the ability to focus one’s attention. The ability to focus one’s attention can be both learned and strengthened. Though the human brain is technically an organ, it acts more like a muscle. Here are a few simple techniques you can use to improve your attention span and, ultimately, improve your leadership skills.

Listen. Start your day by focusing on your heartbeat. Raise your awareness of each beat. How fast is your heart beating? Can you feel the vibration? Can you hear each beat? The more you focus on your heartbeat, the more the insula activate neurons in that circuitry and the greater your focus.

Meditate. Schedule five-minute meditation breaks in your day. Eliminate external distractions like your email and phone. Then, just close your eyes and breath. A few deep, concentrated breaths can re-focus your attention. Meditation brings a sense of calmness, reduces stress, and builds concentration.

Awareness. When you catch your mind wandering, bring it back to your desired focus. Simply raising your awareness of how and when your mind wanders actually increases your ability to maintain higher levels of focus.

Exercise. Yes, there’s an app for that. A number of apps and online science-based games, like Lumosity and CogniFit, have been developed to exercise the brain, and improve concentration and focus.

An organization without a focused leader is like a rudderless ship with a clueless crew in the middle of a blinding storm. . . they’ll never reach their destination, at least not in one piece.