Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in a person’s life are the day they are born and the day they figure out why.” How are you doing at that?

As an executive coach, I have the privilege of working with many types of leaders — from owners of small family businesses to founders of startup companies, CEOs of large multi-national corporations, and women re-entering the workforce after more than a decade of caring for their children. While each has different strengths and weaknesses, they all share the opportunity to grow as leaders by first getting to know themselves at a deeper level. (See my earlier blog for thoughts on the Jesuits, a 500 year old organization getting it right by starting with Self Knowledge.)

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, puts it well when he writes:

Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives. People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest—with themselves and with others.

Goleman views self-awareness as the first of five components of emotional intelligence. (The other four are self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.) He describes self-awareness as the ability to be candid and assess oneself realistically. When leaders have high self-awareness, they are able to speak accurately and openly about their emotions and the impact they have on their work.

How can individuals in leadership positions improve their self-awareness?

I get this question frequently in my coaching sessions. I like to think of self-awareness as both knowledge of yourself (your strengths and weaknesses) and knowledge of how you tend to interact and impact others (e.g., co-workers, employees, friends, spouse, family members). I offer a couple steps to improve both sides of this leadership equation.

Step 1: Know Yourself

There are plenty of assessment tools in today’s marketplace that help us explore who we truly are. The Myers-Briggs, DISC, and Hogan tests are all worthwhile, but my favorite is the Enneagram. It has an ancient history yet modern psychologists have built upon this ancient base and radically improved the diagnostic aspects of this tool. Take a self test and when reviewing your results pay particular attention to the scale that describes your healthiest self on the one end and your lessor, lower self on the other.  We all live an ebb and flow, sometimes our radiant and best flows forth and other times not.  This sliding scale helps us recognize when we are moving away from our core, our inner good, our essence. This self-knowledge helps us re-calibrate.

Step 2: Observe Yourself

Once you have an idea of your personality traits and day-to-day behaviors, take a few weeks to observe how you react in a variety of situations. Do some self-reflecting and ask yourself: How do I feel when I’m in a crowd? How do I feel when I’m alone? How do I really make decisions? What agitates me? What thrills me? How do I behave when everything is great? How do I behave when I’m feeling stressed?

Keep some notes on the above questions and then compare them to your test results. I think you will find that some traits from the assessments will really stand out as dead on and others will be only mildly accurate. I suspect that you will have a few “ah-ha” moments as you compare the test results to not only your inside view, but also your self observations. This comparison is a great gut check. TALK TO YOUR COACH ABOUT THESE OBSERVATIONS!!

Step 3: Observe How You Impact Others

Your next step is to observe the behavior of others when they are responding to you. Ask yourself: Which of my behaviors or tendencies turn others on? Which ones turn others off? How do I make situations better? How do I make them worse?

With your new-found expertise in your own traits, you also will become an acute observer of others’ strengths, weaknesses, and behaviors. It is important to not become a “labeler” of others’ traits, but to focus on improving your own perceptiveness. That way you can more readily identify others who complement you — individuals who have different strengths and weaknesses than you.

I hope these suggestions help you on your path to self discovery and stronger leadership. Please let me know how you build self-awareness and how it affects your leadership style by tweeting @ace_wagner.