If You Don’t Know Yourself, You Don’t Know Anything

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Hello, again. After some lively discussion about Women+Museums, this week we return to questions of leadership. Recently, we’ve been talking a lot about self-awareness in anticipation of our trip to AAM in April. In Leadership Matters we identified four traits–authenticity, self-awareness, courage and vision– associated with the leaders we interviewed. Those were characteristics that floated to the surface from our interviews, not labels we pinned on our interviewees. But the more we think and talk and observe leadership, we believe self-awareness is the most important of the four. Why? Because if you don’t know yourself, you don’t know anything. Truly. It’s that important. You can create magical exhibits, read spreadsheets in your sleep, balance your budget, write a brilliant grant application, and be a friend to all your staff, but if you don’t know yourself, you’re in trouble.

Self-awareness is everywhere these days. It’s in the business literature; it’s on NPR; it’s in women’s magazines and the Harvard Business Review. Here’s what self-awareness isn’t: It’s not taking a personality test like Myers Briggs or the PAEI and identifying with one personality type or other. Knowing that you’re a “producer” or an “entrepreneur” doesn’t solve anything unless you know what to do with the information.

And completing a personality test doesn’t give you a free pass. Knowing you are a “champion” or an “innovator” doesn’t mean that you’ve fixed anything. Nor does it mean that once your colleagues know you’re “authoritarian” they’re going to buy into that. Yikes. They’re probably busy feeling proud of their diagnostic abilities. They knew you were bossy and self-centered and now the test proved it. If this scenario happens to you what do you do? Well, it’s likely you’re not all authoritarian. Find the other parts of you and work on them. Self-knowledge isn’t anything you finish. It simply provides the information that helps you understand how you as a leader work with others in your department, team, or museum.

Know that you aren’t one thing all the time. You’ll likely have two or more personality types that compete for air time in the you that is you. You may come to understand that you’re more creative–an idea factory some days–but follow through isn’t your strong suit. What does that tell you? Well, you could search for a position where your primary responsibility is to be an idea factory. Or you could be strategic about the people you team up with so that your skills complement theirs. The same goes if you, the mad creative type, are a leader. Knowing your primary and secondary strengths allows you to build a team that reinforces and complements each other. There is a sports analogy here, but I will leave it alone. The point is that good leaders are constantly aware of how they’re “playing” to those around them. There is a rhythm to the way they work: self-understanding, experimentation, reflection. That individual strategy works organizationally too.

So this week try this: after meetings, after one-on-ones, after speeches, reflect. Think about what worked and what didn’t. If you could wave the “do-over” wand, what would you change? Why? Then go forward and tweak. Adjust. Change. Try again. Being a leader isn’t an end point. It’s simply a different job title. Life is change. Good leaders are prepared for it by knowing themselves and being ready to adapt.

Joan Baldwin

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