Are You A Clueless Boss? 3 Steps to Self-Awareness

Last Updated Oct 21, 2011 8:44 AM EDT

Sometimes you can get to the top of the heap and still be utterly clueless.

This thought came to me as I read recent comments that Bob Nardelli, who was CEO of Chrysler during the brief period when the car company was owned by Cerberus, the investment firm. When Chrysler went bankrupt and got the government bailout, Cerberus was forced to give up its ownership and turn Chrysler over to Fiat, which promptly made Chrysler a big success.

But Nardelli told The Detroit News that Cerberus deserves credit for that. "If the government gave [Cerberus] the deal they gave Fiat, we'd be doing just fine."
Nardelli's comments were at odds with how others see his tenure. Says Rebecca Linland of HIS Automotive:
"This is like a foster parent who briefly raised a child at age 5 taking credit when they grew up to be president of the United States or an Olympic athlete..I don't think many people at Chrysler would agree with [Nardelli's assessment of Cerberus]."
Failure to understand what you actually accomplished (versus what you think you accomplished) is fundamental to self-awareness. But that can be hard for top execs, who tend to suffer from an ability to overstate their contributions.

It takes a strong character for an accomplished individual to recognize one's shortcomings. Such moments of self-awareness often involve the willingness to look hard at the proverbial mirror, or very often listen to close friend or spouse. Once this moment is accepted the door to self-improvement opens.

But for the door to stay open, the leader must do three things:

Understand what is at stake. It is one thing to understand a flaw; it is another issue to recognize its importance. Take poor communications, for example. Leaders need to know that improving their communications is not just a matter of self-polishing; it is important means of setting direction for others to follow. Poor communicators cannot lead.

Change your approach. Very often the process of self-improvement involves stopping one behavior in favor of doing something else. For example, a manager who has a tendency to micromanage must learn to stop looking over the shoulder of his direct reports. He must learn to let go of this urge to control everything in favor of letting his people figure things out for themselves. In return, he needs to channel energy expended in close supervision on things of a more strategic nature. The explanation is straightforward but it takes genuine commitment to put into practice.

Invite feedback, lots of it, even if it hurts. To reinforce the development process one option is continuous feedback. One style of feedback, developed by Marshall Goldsmith, is called "feedforward." This is the practice of asking an individual or two to observe your actions and note your progress (or lack thereof) on a given behavior.

For example, an executive might tell a colleague that he is working on being more open-minded. The colleague will observe how well the executive listens without interrupting, enables others to voice their point of view, and tones down the practice speaking first at meetings. Relaying those observations to the executive helps him or her improve her ability to act with a more open disposition.

Self-awareness requires self-discipline, the strength to look at ourselves flaws and all and resolve to do something to correct them. All it takes is a lifetime of practice.

Related:
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