CEO – Know thyself

In the 1880s, the teenage Marcel Proust filled out a questionnaire given to him by his friend Antoinette, the daughter the French president Felix Faure. It was a version of today’s popular personality tests, designed to reveal the answers, tastes, aspirations and sensibility in a series of simple questions.

Proust’s original manuscript, titled ‘by Marcel Proust himself,’ wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death. Decades later, the French television host Bernard Pivot, saw the questionnaire as a framework for his celebrity interviews and began administering it to his guests. In 1993, Vanity Fair resurrected the tradition and started publishing various public figures’ answers to the ‘Proust Questionnaire’ on the last page of each issue.

Among the most eye-catching answers, equal parts playful and profound, are those by David Bowie, which included these responses:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
    Reading.
  • What is your most marked characteristic?
    Getting a word in edgewise.
  • What do you consider your greatest achievement?
    Discovering morning.
  • What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
    While in New York, tolerance.
    Outside New York, intolerance.

Every CEO should have a go at answering the Proust Questionnaire, it provides a simple way to start thinking about what they stand for and what makes them tick, a first step to understanding their own personality better and how it may be impacting their company's culture and performance.  Whilst it wouldn't replace structured psychological testing, the diverse set of questions does allow a broader assessment to be gleaned than the traditional leadership surveys. Self-awareness is all encompassing. But just how well do you know yourself?

‘Know thyself’ is one of the tenets on which Western philosophy is founded. But knowing thyself is only half the story, 'Be thyself' needs consideration too. The ability to ‘be thyself’, to be authentic and sincere, has never been more important. For CEOs, authenticity is critical. It is the way they earn trust with their stakeholders, particularly employees. Being thyself is difficult without knowing thyself.

It is damaging to ignore your inner self, your strengths and weaknesses, personality traits and how you impact others. As a CEO, if you are absolutely blind when it comes to self-awareness, then your personal impact and approach can create turmoil, distrust and turnover among your executive team without an appreciation of the impact of your personal interactions.

Self-assessment, and understanding yourself and how you impact others is an essential step to maximizing your leadership skills. Delving into your personality traits, passions, values, drivers, and motivations can help you build on your strengths, compensate for weaknesses, make better business decisions and ultimately be a better leader. Watch yourself and learn.

Self-analysis should be continual, constantly seeking to improve through regular feedback that assesses your leadership impact. You may believe that you interact with people well and have the ability to influence others, but you may also have some negative aspects to your personality – for example, a tendency to be very controlling. The result is that staff may feel they aren't given enough autonomy to make their own decisions.

Discovering your true self can be difficult. Potential pitfalls include flat-out denial of weaknesses and persuading yourself you are better - or worse - at something than you actually are. We're all blind to the changes we'd most benefit from making.Like anything worthwhile, developing self-awareness takes time and requires an investment.

Why not take 15 minutes in the morning and at night to disengage from the business, reflect on who you are and where you want to go? On a daily basis, this could clarify what you're best at and what will contribute most to your business, and help to understand ‘why I am the way I am’.

One CEO I know who did this recognised that his natural style was to 'Keep up with me and shut up.' He expected to set the direction and tone, and for everyone to keep up with him. But the effect was ‘we don't really make a difference here because John's driving the whole thing and he doesn't want my input’.

Recognising this tendency, where he thought he had to shoulder this responsibility alone, he now engages with his team to get their input and be more inclusive.Self-assessment can be scary, but it's worth the effort. When you understand the impact you have in the company, it informs and instructs you. It will also give you a greater balance.

Focus on building your self-awareness, it enables the best business-builders to walk the tightrope of leadership - projecting conviction while simultaneously remaining humble enough to be open to new ideas and opposing opinions. The conviction that CEOs need to articulate and execute their vision makes them less sensitive to embracing their vulnerabilities, which only makes self-awareness that much more essential.

To implement a self-awareness agenda, consider adopting these three steps:

  • Ask yourself ‘Where am I going, what do I believe in, what is my purpose here?’ This will help clarify your vision and values and your understanding of why you do what you do. 
  • Pick up on the grapevine chatter about perceptions and the ‘drum-beat’ internally, chat informally with employees over a coffee or beer, and try asking ‘what should I keep doing, what should I stop doing?’ 
  • Undertake a formal 360-degree feedback review on yourself and your executive team to help discover your strengths, weakness and impact on others.

This is the trinity of self-awareness – ‘know thyself, improve thyself, and complement thyself’. Intellectual honesty, rigorous commitment, and active truth-seeking are essential to the self-awareness process.

Self-reflection and its reward of self-awareness cannot be thought of as passive exercise or soft science, they’re absolutely essential to leadership and personal development. The Proust Questionnaire maybe a bit of fun, but Aristotle’s ‘Know thyself is the beginning of all wisdom’ reflects the foundations that any organisation improvement starts with the CEO’s own self-assessment.

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