Coach's Corner: Are You Self-Aware? True Leaders Know

By Robert Hicks, PhD
September 6, 2017

Anyone who’s responsible for the professional development of others should take a long look in the mirror and ask the right questions for a realistic understanding of who they are. Good leaders already do this.

Coaching does not occur in a vacuum. It exists within the context of the relationship between a leader and a learner. This relationship is called a working alliance1 but, more simply, it can be called a coaching relationship.

Robert Hicks

Robert Hicks

Without the existence of a positive relationship, the coaching process will be impoverished regardless of the tools or techniques employed. A positive relationship depends upon the personal qualities of the coach-leader. Chief among these qualities is self-awareness.

As a coach, you bring yourself to everything you do during each moment of the day. Therefore, the advice written eons ago on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi — “know thyself” — is critical to ensuring that you bring your best self to your coaching conversations, and concomitantly your leadership activities.

Knowing thyself — that is, self-awareness — means having an understanding of one’s behavioral habits, thought patterns and emotional reactions. It signifies you are cognizant of your strengths, weaknesses and hot buttons, as well as how you are likely to respond when those buttons are pushed. Equally important is that self-awareness denotes an understanding of how your behavior affects others.

What happens when you lack self-awareness? Consider the story of Dr. S., a young physician just out of residency.

During residency, Dr. S. excelled. He published papers. He was elected to represent the house staff in dealing with issues between residents, residency leadership and hospital administration. He was appointed chief resident in his final year. He believed he was a proven leader as he moved from residency into a job in a community practice setting. He was excited that the leadership skills and abilities he gained during residency positioned him for success in his new group.

Soon after starting his new job, nurses started complaining about Dr. S. ignoring their concerns over patient issues; they felt that he did not listen to them. He frequently questioned their view of problems and suggested solutions, often in a demeaning tone and in front of patients and other staff. He frequently interrupted nurses in mid-sentence or finished their sentences altogether, justifying his behavior as a way of “being efficient and quickly handling the problem.”  The nurses, on the other hand, considered him impatient and rude.

Dr. S. compounded the problem with his use of “humor.” While he thought he was funny, his joking came across as sarcasm which, instead of deflating the tension, only increased it. In fact, the nurses thought he was mocking them. Each counterproductive interaction worsened the relationship between Dr. S. and the nurses, and he became even more impatient and rigid. It was clear that he had very little self-awareness. Eventually, leadership stepped in.


Now, suppose that Dr. S. was expected to coach and develop staff. Imagine how his lack of self-awareness would hinder his ability to do so. His reputation alone would give him minimal credibility as a coach. Given that the gap between how others perceived him and how he saw himself was significant, and that he was unaware of this difference, there would be no impetus to change. Dr. S. lived in a world where his worldview prevailed, but unfortunately, it was a worldview that was impoverished by his lack of self-awareness.

Interestingly enough, the story ended well. After discussions with leadership, Dr. S. agreed to meet with a coach on a regular basis and began to realize how his words and actions impacted others. Over time, he became aware of his blind spots, understood how his words and actions affected nurses and staff, and then intentionally started behaving differently as a result of his increased awareness. The change was not quick, nor was it easy, but it began with self-awareness.

How do you recognize if a person is self-aware? Psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman states2 that self-awareness is indicated by:

  • Candor and the ability to assess oneself realistically.
  • The capacity to speak accurately and openly about one’s emotions, thoughts and behavior, and the impact they have on one’s work and other people.
  • A willingness to find comfort in talking about one’s limitations as well as one’s strengths.

Some would say another indicator is the demonstrated ability to use realistic self-assessment to determine the thought patterns and behaviors that are professionally counterproductive, and then intentionally act to reduce their impact.


How do you develop self-awareness? The answer lies in the word itself; namely, being aware of your “self” by making you the focus of your attention in a way that allows you to gain new insights, make wiser decisions and behave appropriately in situations relevant to you and your career. There are many ways to cultivate self-awareness, but all of them employ two tactics.

Self-reflection. We live in a busy world, moving from task to task and event to event. Self-awareness relies on the ability to stop and think about yourself relative to what you are doing, how you are doing it and how that relates to what you want out of life, both personally and professionally. In a sense, you are coaching yourself by asking questions that induce introspection:

  •  What am I trying to achieve?
  • What am I doing that’s working?
  • How might I be getting in my own way?
  • Where do I need to change?
  • What have I learned?

Questioning yourself is essential to becoming more self-aware. Learning and growth take place by purposely grappling with and thinking about one’s experiences — failures and successes. This process helps us grow and develop because once we make something the object of our attention, we can understand it, make decisions about it, act on it and possibly change it.  

Objective feedback. Who we are consists of two parts: self-identity (how we see ourselves) and reputation (how others see us). The more self-aware a person is, the more alignment there will be between these two perspectives. Accurate self-assessment promotes a realistic self-identity. A personality assessment can provide a more objective look at who you are than self-reflection alone. Well-established measurements can help you understand your strengths, weaknesses and behavioral tendencies, and how they compare to others’.

Reputation is sometimes harder to assess because it depends upon the willingness of others to give you honest feedback. It also depends upon your readiness to accept their comments, especially if the information differs from your self-identity. Receiving feedback is difficult because of the psychological triggers that prevent acceptance of that feedback and learning from it. However, without feedback, you are susceptible to blind spots — traits or behaviors you don’t see but others do. Sometimes, these blind spots are inconsequential, but other times, as in the case of Dr. S., they are debilitating. Self-aware people continuously attempt to reduce blind spots through self-reflection and objective feedback to ensure that their self-identity and reputation are in line.


Self-awareness is essential for the coach-leader. Goleman calls it the core competency of emotional intelligence.2 It is strongly correlated with self-regulation and empathy. Both are crucial for effective coaching.

Self-regulation “includes the self-discipline of controlling one’s attentional focus, restraint in managing self-talk and making judgments, the ability to control one’s emotional reactions, and the willpower to find positive qualities in the client, regardless of their personal characteristics or situation.”3.

Empathy is an awareness of, and interest in, the thoughts and feelings of others. It is one of the most basic capacities for understanding another person and, therefore, is central to establishing and maintaining a positive coaching relationship. Furthermore, self-awareness allows you to play to your strengths as a coach and avoid falling prey to blinds spots that may undermine your effectiveness.

As with leadership, coaching relies on personal credibility. People who are self-aware typically are held in high regard by others, because they have a thorough understanding of themselves. They are honest, both with themselves and others. They recognize how their behavior affects others and self-regulate so that they can be the most effective in their interactions. They are self-confident, and yet are candid about their limitations —often displaying a self-deprecating sense of humor. They are open to constructive criticism and, in fact, seek it whenever possible. In short, they are the kind of people that serve as positive role models.

What could be more important to the coaching relationship than that?

Robert Hicks is a licensed psychologist and a clinical professor of organizational behavior, and founding director of the Executive and Professional Coaching Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. He also is a faculty associate at UT Southwestern Medical Center, and the author of Coaching as a Leadership Style: The Art and Science of Coaching Conversations for Healthcare Professionals (2014) and The Process of Highly Effective Coaching: An Evidence-Based Framework (2017).


1. Bordin ES (1979). The Generalizability of the Psychoanalytic Concept of the Working Alliance. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. 16 (3), 252-260.

2. Goleman D (2003). What Makes a Leader? In L. W. Porter, H. L. Angle, & R. W. Allen (Eds.). Organizational Influence Processes (pp. 229-239). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.

3. Hicks RF (2017). The Process of Highly Effective Coaching: An Evidence-Based Framework (pp. 184). New York: Routledge.

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