Increasing self-awareness: questions to lead by - Education Matters Magazine
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Increasing self-awareness: questions to lead by

In his work with tens of thousands of school leaders in different stages of their professional leadership development, Dr Stephen Brown has found a leadership credo to be a powerful strategy for self-reflection and self-awareness.

Leadership is a lifetime learning activity. Given the act of leadership is carried out by a diverse range of individuals, each being ultimately fallible, imperfect, and profoundly human, then this must and should be the case.

Leaders must commit to learning as a fundamental to enable their growth and maturation in the art and practice of leadership. We all have the capacity to inspire and empower others as leaders, but we must first be willing to devote ourselves to our personal growth (Sims, McLean, and Mayer, 2007).

In most organisations, most people are doing a second job – spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, hiding their inadequacies, uncertainties, and limitations (after Kegan and Lahey, 2016).

Leaders must accept and wrestle with a presenting paradox or tension that no one will be the perfect leader, but everyone should aspire to be one. All leaders should be their authentic self – bringing their best gifts, strengths, mindsets, and unique personal story to their work. We learn in context, and we learn in relationships with others. Therefore, every new situation and every interchange with other people provides us with the opportunity to shape our leadership further.

A key trait that all good leaders share is self-awareness underpinned by self-reflective practices. The best leaders are the best reflectors. The Centre for Creative Leadership (2023) note that leader self-awareness is the number one trait for any leader in any organisational context.

Self-awareness is a foundational trait that forms the basis for other leadership skills and behaviours. Leaders who are more self-aware arguably have a mature understanding of their strengths and weaknesses; are conscious of their personal biases, values, motivations and the impact of these on their decision making; tend to have better emotional intelligence that enable them to be building positive ‘in tune, resonant’ relationships (after Boyatzis); are more adaptable adjusting their leadership approach in response to the context, feedback and the capabilities of the individuals, teams and stakeholders they are engaging with; build trust and credibility because they are seen as authentic and genuine; are usually effective communicators and constructively address conflict.

Dobrygowski (2016) suggests that ‘selfreflection requires you to question your assumptions and habits and ask whether they are useful in dealing with the world around you’. What are some questions that school leaders should consider as a basis for self-reflection and to enable them to gain greater self-awareness? Here are initial questions and support strategies that school leaders can consider.

1. What is your ‘why’ as a school leader? Always ‘pivot back to your purpose’.

A leader’s ‘True North’ or ‘North Star’ is their orientating point derived from deeply held principles, beliefs, and values. Nicholson (2013) poses this as the ‘compass question’ – what is the gravitational force or reference point that pulls a leader in one direction, rather than another.

The Australian Standard for Principals and the Professional Profiles (2015, 2019) note that one of the professional areas in school leader practice is understanding self before leading others. School leaders need to surface and make conscious their values that inform their individual professional vision and narrative.

A leadership credo or narrative invites leaders to write and share their core values, beliefs about education and their purpose. Such an artefact should also be written in a draft, continually reviewed. When we question what we are doing as educational leaders we should always pivot back to our purpose – our personal narrative or credo.

2. Are you still curious and courageous?

Do you still have the desire, the drive and interest in asking these important questions that you don’t have the answers to? These are the questions that will be challenging, perhaps confronting, but necessary to explore to enable the growth and development of the school you lead. Bushe (2013) notes that individuals, teams, organisations such as schools and society evolve in a particular direction that they collectively, passionately, and persistently ask questions about. Heifetz and Laurie (2001) notes that one can lead with no more than a question in hand.

One strategy that enables leaders to frame those tough, curious questions is the adaptive leadership framework that focuses on leading in situations where there is no clear solution or where existing ones are not effective. Such circumstance sometimes requires courage and a commitment to raising expectations. The refrain from Lieutenant General David Morrison (former Chief of the Australian Army) he uttered in 2013 is one that is useful to continually reflect upon – ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’.

School leaders need to continue to ask those challenging questions with the aspired intent of improving outcomes for all students and staff.

3. What is your internal dialogue?

Muhammad Ali, the iconic sportsman and social activist, noted that ‘the fight is won far away from the witnesses.’ A key reflective practice for you as a leader, is to listen to your inner dialogue. What is your inner voice saying? Typically, such dialogue will focus on time, motivation, and relationships. Such thoughts and feelings can be positive, negative and at the extreme, debilitating. In working with tens of thousands of leaders, managing and moderating inner dialogue is a significant issue. Good leaders will develop practical strategies to manage, cultivate and at times, quell this voice. These include engaging with a coach, mentor, to learn to embrace ‘your weird’ (after Crowe) and to remember the refrain ‘you are enough’ (after Brown, 2023) to enable positive self -talk.

“All leaders should be their authentic self – bringing their best gifts, strengths, mindsets, and unique personal story to their work. We learn in context, and we learn in relationships with others.”

4. Who is on your leadership team?

Leadership is not a solo sport. What kind of support team do you have to assist you in leading? A useful strategy for all school leaders to consider is establishing a personal Board of Directors (after Collins, J). Typically, a Board of Directors would have directorship for a peer, cheer leader, connector, coach / mentor, and innovator. These categories can be moderated and augmented depending on the needs of each leader. A personal Board of Directors help us to navigate those liminal spaces and sustain our energy for leadership. Adam Grant in his text, Hidden Potential (2023) notes that all leaders and individuals need various forms of scaffolding such as mentors to enable growth and potential to be realised.

5. How do you capture learning as a leader?

“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflection on experience.” The seminal framework of John Dewey is one that is a useful tool for leaders to ‘catch their learning’. His taxonomy of questions is of:

  • What? – What was the situation? What Happened?
  • So What? – So what worked or did not work? So what is the impact?
  • And Now What? – Now what will I do differently? Now what are my next steps?

This framing set of questions with other related strategies such as coaching, Board of Directors, feedback in various mediums are useful ways to enable leadership development.

6. Asking core questions

Nicolson, N (2013) notes that the self is a work in progress. It is a hall of mirrors. Leaders can claim it as their own and take command. This is some of the hardest work that a leader will ever do. The challenge for each of us as leaders is to turn reflection into practices. Leadership is ‘a verb, discovered in action and demonstrated in application’ (Westfall, 2019). Our growth as leaders should be continuous but never complete.

Augustine Rodin’s iconic bronze statue, Le Penseur, ‘The Thinker’, was recast 28 times since the original in 1902. The challenge, analogously, is not dissimilar to the one we face as leaders. We need to evolve, refine, and look at the same subject, ourselves from different perspectives. Good leaders ask great questions. For our renewal and continuous development as a leader we need to engage in self-reflection based on asking ourselves core questions – questions to lead by. What are your questions?

Image: Dr Stephen Brown

About the author

Dr Stephen Brown has an international and national reputation as an outstanding CEO and leader in the field of education. He is the Managing Director of The Brown Collective, focused on the formation of educational leaders and partnering with schools, networks and system to enable sustainable impact. The organisation reflects both his collective experience over 40 years in policy, strategy and leadership development – and that of the remarkable global network he has developed during this career.

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