… But Aren’t All Great Leaders Self-Aware?

By Douglas Foster – Current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program and ‘Leadership Practice and Development’ unit coach.

doug-no3-1-of-1One of my favourite cartoons was in a newspaper several years ago. It’s of a CEO standing around his team of managers declaring, “What we’re lacking is street smarts. Does anyone here not have an MBA?”

The irony is not lost on me that 6 years later I am a fully-fledged MBA student at the University of Sydney Business School. How my life has changed.

What is perhaps changing less is the perception of what an MBA delivers. Last week the AFR released an article with the results of a survey on prospective MBA students around the world and what they wanted out of an MBA. From a list of 17 desired skills, students identified Leadership, Critical Thinking, Entrepreneurialism, Negotiation, and Communication as the top five they wanted to develop. Self-Awareness was 17th.

At first it’s not hard to see why. Each one of the top five above would be considered fundamental to a range of jobs and careers that an MBA graduate might aspire to. And very few organisations would have Self-Awareness as part of a PD or as a KPI. Yet ranking Self-Awareness as 17 out of 17 desired skills seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of skills and how they are developed.

In Leadership Practice and Development (LP&D), the first unit of the University of Sydney MBA, we learnt that there are two fundamentally different parts to skill development. There’s cognition and then there’s interaction. Cognition is about theory and concepts: objective truth. It’s developed through knowledge transfer: lectures, books, videos. But the moment you transition from understanding (eg. analyzing solutions to a strategy problem) to interacting (eg. attempting to persuade others to your way of seeing the world), influencing is involved and having an acute understanding of your tendencies, strengths and areas for development becomes critical to achieving the outcome you want. Self-Awareness.

Leadership, Critical Thinking, Entrepreneurialism, Negotiation and Communication all have best practice cognitive elements that are important to know. But unless you’re locked away in a reaseach lab, isolated from other people, getting stuff done requires leveraging that knowledge in an interactive setting. This depends on your ability to influence, which is massively impacted by your individual personal style.

Self-Awareness can often be overlooked in the same way building core strength is not an obvious essential to building arm muscle and leg muscle strength. Without a strong core, stability during an exercise can be poor, and muscle development is inefficient or leads to injury due to poor technique. No professional gymnast begins by jumping on rings without building their core strength.

Leadership is much the same. Like the core, self-awareness combines with your conceptual understanding of leadership theory to develop your leadership effectiveness. Just focusing on knowledge would have your leadership effectiveness remain a concept. So just as all great gymnasts develop great core strength, all great leaders develop their self-awareness.

LP&D, facilitated by Professor Mike Jenner, leads with Self-Awareness. Incoming students are exposed to a raft of personality instruments (Myers Briggs, Gallup StrengthsFinder, Belbin Team Roles) even before they start class. What really sets LP&D apart though, is that for more than half of class time, students are in action, individually and in teams, engaging in influencing behaviours with each other.

Through the coaches in the unit, students get immediate personalised feedback, not just about the individual skills being coached, but also about how they are being in the interaction: body language, tone, assertiveness, expression. The course requires students to notice what they do, how they do it, and how it lands for others. For some students the opportunity to be a more influential leader is through increased assertiveness, for others through increased connectedness. Without Self-Awareness, you don’t have a map.

Even after LP&D, every course within the University of Sydney MBA contains some element of team work. The Financial Management unit will teach you everything from accounting principles to how to analyse the financial performance of a company but you’ll still complete a team project with classmates to test your ability to influence the financial outcome. Not even a CFO can implement a financial strategy without influencing the Managing Director, CEO and senior managers.

And because the University of Sydney MBA is part time, catering to full time professionals, everything learned at night or on the weekend can be immediately taken back into the workplace to engage in real life Action Learning.

If you’re thinking about an MBA, it’s important to know what you want to get out of it. Find the right university that caters to what you want and what you don’t want, and what educational approaches are going to help you develop your career. I chose the University of Sydney because I know that as all great gymnasts develop their core strength, all great leaders develop their self-awareness. And thanks in large part to LP&D, University of Sydney MBA graduates rarely ‘lack street smarts’.

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