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How well do you know yourself?

COMMENTARY Chances are others don't see you the way you see yourself. Whose perspective matters more? Theirs does, of course. More importantly, if there's a big gap between the two, you could be looking at a career-limiting problem.

What's particularly insidious about this, especially for executives and leaders, is that self-awareness is usually inversely proportional to the size of your ego. In other words, those who need to be more self-aware rarely are, and vice versa. Ironic, isn't it?

Take me for example. I always knew how aggressive and driven I was when it came to business, but I had no idea how intimidating and harsh I came across at times. My wife used to tell me, "It's not what you say but how you say it." But when you're that clueless about your own behavior, subtle feedback doesn't really cut it. It takes a sledgehammer.

The most ineffective chief executives I've ever known were completely oblivious to how they came across to others. One Fortune 1000 CEO was so needy and attention-seeking he'd hold people captive in his personal conference room for hours while he told stories and wasted everyone's valuable time. He had no idea how transparent his behavior was.

Political leaders have the same problem. I can't imagine that Newt Gingrich is aware of how over-the-top grandiose he comes across, like he's the smartest guy in the room, and how disconcerting that can be for those who feel the key to wisdom and success is asking lots of questions, not having all the answers. Not to pick on Newt; he's just an example.

Where do big ideas come from?
Where does leadership come from?

While employees are generally unwilling and, in my opinion, ill advised to stick their necks out when it comes to their boss' behavior, in the case of politicians, you know they have advisors who tell them how they're coming across. And therein lies the rub.

While they may be able to manipulate their behavior for the camera -- just like actors do -- it doesn't change what's going on inside. So when the rubber meets the road, emotions are running high, fear is in the air, and critical decisions need to be made, they'll still behave the way they're wired to behave. It is what it is.

That said, there's probably nothing more revealing than determining how consistent your self-image is with the way others see you. If the gap is nominal, you're good to go. If not, you can improve your chances of having a successful career -- and a happy life, for that matter -- by embarking on a little journey of self-discovery.

The choice, of course, is yours, and you shouldn't make it lightly. It's scary, but daring to step outside your comfort zone always is. You never how things will turn out. Still, it's one risk that's absolutely worth taking, in my opinion.

Not only that, but it's relatively easy to start. All you have to do is ask the right people the right questions in the right way. Get some 360-degree feedback from your bosses, direct reports and peers. Have your HR person conduct it and make sure that all responses are anonymous.

Ask about your behavior one-on-one, in meetings, and under pressure. Ask about your communication, decision-making and how you can be more effective. Ask what you can do to make them more effective and successful. Ask them to describe you, the good and the bad, and not to pull any punches. That's always a good one.

If the results are unexpected, that's just the beginning. The hard part is understanding why your self-image is skewed with respect to reality. That's right -- how others see you is reality, folks. And after understanding comes change. That's even harder. But then, it's a journey. Just take it one step at a time.

Will it help in your career and your life? Absolutely, but only if you're willing to be honest with yourself. That's always where self-awareness begins. Where it ends depends entirely on you, how open you are to change and how hard you're willing to work.

If you need some inspiration to get started, this proverb from the Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu always works for me:

He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

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