This article about Self-Awareness and Self-Handicapping Leadership is the fourth article in a series of twelve independent articles about Self-Handicapping Leadership. Please find an overview of articles at the end of this article.


We all like to think that we are aware – both self-aware and aware of our surroundings, coworkers, organization, and industry. Yet many leaders do not spend enough time looking at themselves or their environment – and this is self-handicapping. Of course, awareness can be scary.

Leaders self-handicap because of uncertainty – sometimes they would rather feel good about what they already know than try something new and risk being embarrassed or being less than perfect. Growth usually hurts – we all know that. But effective leaders learn that being unaware can hurt a lot more and for much longer.

Self-awareness is having a clear perception of one’s personality, competencies, strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. It allows a leader to understand other people, their perception of him, and his/her responses to them. It is also awareness of one’s environment – employees, customers, organization, industry – and managing that environment.

We all think we know our surroundings and ourselves fairly well, but in reality most of us don’t

Who are YOU?

We all think we know our surroundings and ourselves fairly well, but in reality, most of us don’t; we focus on our work. Many of our business students are absolutely certain that they are extroverted, flexible, optimistic, and not controlling. When asked to do a self-assessment, most quickly discover that their initial perceptions are false.

Typically, business students are less extroverted and more linear, pessimistic and controlling than average (Decker & Mitchell, 2016). Of course, some individuals break that mold, but until some hard self-assessment with valid instruments is done, they may be deluding themselves as to who they are and where they are going. We force self-assessment on our students, but current managers must choose this path.

Self-Awareness is a Choice

The choice to be aware or not be aware is a choice we all make – every minute of every day. Even our students, when forced to do self-assessment, can still deny the results. A lot of us have selective awareness – being aware of the things that we like and avoiding things that we would rather not be aware of. This is a normal reaction.

Self-awareness is fundamental for anyone to realize full leadership potential. Full awareness results in humility and makes an individual far less likely to engage in self-handicapping behaviors. Yet, being aware is in itself not enough to overcome self-sabotage. Put simply, a leader can be aware and not act on that awareness.

Self-awareness is fundamental for anyone to realize full leadership potential

Recognizing is seeing what one does. Acknowledgment is the act of understanding why that behavior is used – what are the triggers that cause one to choose to self-handicap? Admitting is accepting that the behavior affects others. Finally, Adjusting is finding better ways of operating.

True awareness comes from acknowledging one’s behavior, admitting how that behavior affects others and changing. This allows the leader to stop making excuses or blaming others to avoid looking at him/herself. The ability to judge ourselves makes us uniquely human, but don’t forget that lack of awareness and those excuses lead to a reduced effort, lack of learning, and obstacles in leadership.

Emotional intelligence has long been theorized to contribute to effectiveness in leadership; however, empirical work demonstrating this link is not conclusive (Bratton et al. 2011). Overall, businesses have not had good fortune when basing selection, promotion, or reward decisions on measurement of emotional intelligence. The answer may lie in understanding self-awareness and how it affects self-handicapping.

Effective Leadership: Emotional Intelligence or Humility?

Bratton and his co-authors (2011) suggest that the notion of modesty is an effective leadership trait that seems to be less embraced by business practitioners and may be as or more important than emotional intelligence. In business, we tend to look for and reward dominance and self‐assuredness in our leaders. Humility often takes a back seat, but in our work, we have found that great leaders with a mastery goal orientation are humble.

Humility also increases employee satisfaction, self-leadership, and effectiveness (Tekleab et al. 2007). We believe that leaders who are aware, sure of their competence – and therefore humble – embrace mastery goals, rarely self-handicap, and are more effective.

Self-Handicapping Leadership, Personal Boundaries, and Boundary Violations

An important first step in self-assessment is to look at one’s boundaries. Effective leaders know where their boundaries end and where another persons’ begin. When we talk about needing space, setting limits or determining acceptable behavior, we are really talking about boundaries (Professional Boundaries 2015).

Boundary violations can be subtle. For example, in your next meeting with both males and females, watch carefully and see if you can catch one of the males starting a sentence one or two words before the female speaker is done speaking.

This is very quick. It becomes even worse when the male starts his response with “Yes, but ….” These actions can come from a deep-seated, often unacknowledged, disrespect for the female or it may be cultural on the part of the male. Both are very subtle emotional boundary violations. Ask any woman if this has happened, and the answer will be “Yes, all the time!”.

Photographer: Esparta Palma

Boundary violations like this in today’s workplace are usually subtle, not acknowledged, and in this case, fester in half the workforce. When we adopt a higher-level of awareness and recognize how our behavior affects others, we then pay attention to the boundaries between others and ourselves. This is the beginning of understanding how awareness affects self-handicapping as well as humility and can give rise to exceptional leadership.

Boundary Violations Involve Two People

A key element of self-awareness is understanding that boundary violation involves two people the first person steps over a boundary and the other allows it to happen. We violate others’ boundaries by what we do to them that we should not do, and by what we fail to do that we should have done. We often violate others’ boundaries because they let us do it. This is no excuse to trample others’ boundaries, but some managers hire employees more prone to allow such intrusions and thereby handicap their entire operation.

Invite Critique

Once one has examined the fundamentals, like boundaries, it may then be time to ask others for an assessment of one’s awareness. At this point, it is important to be open to constructive criticism. Even with a spotless record, a leader is still vulnerable to blind spots. Asking others for help in identifying these “blind spots” – which are usually self-handicapping – can illuminate issues that a leader had no idea existed.

Exceptional leaders take charge of awareness and self-assess in every way possible

Once he/she becomes aware of these blind spots, he/she can then work on addressing them. In general, the views of other people about you – subordinates, peers, and superiors – agree with each other more often than with one’s own self-assessment. People overestimate the likelihood that they engage in desirable behaviors and vice versa. Organizations try many things to solve these issues – such as using 360 performance reviews. Regardless, our message is clear – exceptional leaders take charge of awareness and self-assess in every way possible.


Sometimes we just need downtime to self-reflect. Most of us are caught up in the “I have no time” lifestyle – resulting in little opportunity for self-reflection. Downtime doesn’t necessarily mean a vacation; it can be 10 minutes every evening before one leaves work to ask, “What was I successful at today?” and “What should I have done differently?” By getting on a daily schedule with these probing questions a leader will be more aware.

Self-reflection is an audit of what, when, and how a leader thinks about and does things. Whatever method of self-reflection a leader chooses, a “one-shot” action will not sustain greater awareness. As an example, keep a journal of the reasons you make a decision and compare that to actual results – this will help you develop an awareness of reasoning skills.

Also, remember that what is a strength now may be a weakness later. Being fairly controlling as a manager can be good; being controlling as an executive is usually bad. It leads to a lack of awareness. Self-assessment is a life-long process for an exceptional leader.

Try These Tests to Determine Personal Strengths and Weaknesses:

There are numerous places where a leader can take a complete battery of tests for free to determine strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. If a leader has never done this kind of assessment, we highly recommend it. One of the standard self-assessments many companies use is the Meyers Briggs. This “test” provides identification of one’s basic preferences in each of 16 distinctive personality types.

The MBTI® publisher, CPP, Inc. (formerly Consulting Psychologists Press), has developed an online system for administering and interpreting the MBTI ® called “MBTI ® Complete”. Check it out if your company does not administer it. Other useful free tests of a leader’s preferences can be found at 123test  or MyPersonality. Also, see The Self-Assessment Library. which is a book measuring a wide range of 69 personal skills, abilities, and interests.

Gallup provides a survey based on the belief that people should focus on making the most of their talents, rather than struggling to work on their weaknesses. Check it out at the Gallup Strength Center. We highly recommend Barbara Pachter’s (2006) book, When the Little Things Count, which lists 601 things every manager and executive should know. It is required reading for all of our students.

Self-Awareness Through Executive Coaching

A more senior leader may look into executive coaching to build awareness. Executive coaching is useful when a leader has few role models or peers to call on as mentors. It can provide leaders with tailored guidance on how to manage people and processes to improve organizational results. Executive coaching should include goals set for understanding and managing self-handicapping behavior. Like all approaches to leadership development, executive coaching is not a cure-all.

The presence of any “teachable moment” in coaching depends on the knowledge that self-handicapping is occurring and a readiness to deal with it. This may come from organizational forces resulting in negative outcomes or from self-generated data such as self-assessment.

Ultimately, the higher a leader’s position, the more he/she is likely to deal with psychological and relational issues. Successful leadership requires astuteness about others – their emotional and strategic personal drivers, and their self-interests, overt and covert. These competencies rest on a foundation of self-knowledge and self-awareness and lead to certainty and humility.

“Wisdom of the Crowd”

We have used an evaluation methodology to estimate the likelihood of failures in organizational projects and strategies that rely on the wisdom of groups of people about certain “markers” of problems.

The “wisdom of the crowd” is a process (Decker et. al. 2012) to elicit the opinions of a group of lower-power individuals rather than a single individual or an elite crowd. This concept is based on James Surowiecki’s (2005) book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki argues that crowds are better than experts at diagnosing and solving problems if they meet four necessary conditions:

1) Diversity of opinion – each person should have private information.

2) Independence – people’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them.

3) Decentralization – people specialize and draw on local knowledge.

4) Aggregation – some type of mechanism exists to arrive at collective judgments (like an anonymous survey).

There is considerable value in using the “wisdom of the crowd” for predicting the likelihood of implementation or strategy failures. Each person has unique information about the subject matter; and lower-level employees, often not heard, have specialized knowledge about factors causing or predicting failure.

By taking into account the average opinion of the crowd, that is; those in the know, with practical experience, who must actually implement the strategies – these factors can be planned for, a better decision can be reached, and interventions can be planned for implementation.

Self-Handicapping Leadership and Markers of Identification

Complexities similar to the above exist in self-handicapping behavior and there are also similar markers of self-handicapping. We believe eliminating self-handicapping behavior, personally or organizationally, is a project to be taken on just like any other large business project and can be predicted and measured.

Remember that self-handicapping is almost always hidden, subtle, and hard to nail down – denied by the individual and undiscussable by the crowd. Hence the search for “markers” and relying on others’ (e.g., your employees) opinions makes some sense.

We contend that the likelihood of identifying self-handicapping is quickly and readily predictable using markers and asking employees the extent of such behavior in you or your organization – but not easy for a manager who is not open and willing to be vulnerable.

The Bottom Line: Denial or Self-Awareness

The bottom line is that there are a number of ways to assess oneself, not only on skills and competencies but on awareness and the impact one has on other people. How well a leader knows him/herself is critical to understanding self-handicapping behavior and its outcomes. The reason is that much self-handicapping stems from ignoring habitual triggers and then ultimately denying the implications of doing so.

We wish to over-emphasize this point: measuring oneself against some outside frame of reference to gauge your traits, preferences, weaknesses, strengths, and self-sabotaging tendencies must not be skipped over, overlooked, or ignored. Awareness is the first step to not shooting yourself in the foot at work, to not sabotaging a leadership career, and to be an exceptional leader. A leader must be aware of who he/she is before trying to change employees or an organization.

Great leaders admit that they are not the best at everything. No matter how competent a leader is, there will always be somebody better. A leader has to recognize his/her own faults and be grateful for what he/she has. Great leaders appreciate others’ talents and remain teachable. A great leader will allow him/herself and others to make mistakes; that is the core of mastery goal orientation.




Exceptional leaders move away from performance goals. While competition can drive people, it’s nearly impossible to not self-handicap when one’s primary motivators are striving to be the “best,” trying to be better than others, or trying to avoid mistakes. Developing healthier environments, where the focus is on learning more, growing, and providing more value for customers, is the key to great leadership. Great leaders are performing at their best when people barely know that they exist. When a leader self-handicaps, all of the employees are aware and it affects them.

Here are a few baby steps for you to start practicing tomorrow:

  • Identify one or two professional blogs that may be helpful to you.
  • Join and become a member of one professional association.
  • Follow and “friend” one industry-related account on social media.
  • Take the “pulse” of five people around you – subordinates, peers, superiors, etc. Write down five ways to build bridges to each.


Bratton, VK., Dodd, NG., Brown, FW. (2011) “The impact of emotional intelligence on accuracy of self‐awareness and leadership performance”, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 32 Issue: 2, pp.127-149.

Decker, P.J., Durand, R., Mayfield, C.O., McCormick, C., Skinner, D., & Perdue, G. (2012). Predicting implementation failures in organization change. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict, 16 (2), 39-60.

Decker, P., & Mitchell, J. (2016). Self-Handicapping Leadership: The Nine Behaviors Holding Back Employees, Managers, and Companies, and How to Overcome Them. Pearson FT Press.

Pachter, B. (2006). When the Little Things Count, Da Capo Publishing.

Professional Boundaries (2015). Summarized from “Professional Boundaries in the Workplace” (accessed June 17, 2015).

Surowiecki, J. (2005). The wisdom of crowds. New York: Anchor Books

Tekleab, A. G., Sims, H. P., Yun, S., Tesluk, P. E., & Cox, J. (2008). Are we on the same page? Effects of self-awareness of empowering and transformational leadership. Journal of leadership & organizational Studies, 14, 185-201.

List of Articles in Self-Handicapping Leadership Series

#1: Why Self-Handicapping Leadership can be a Hurtful Strategy

#2: From Self-Handicapping Leadership to Mastery Management

#3: Overcoming Self-Handicapping Leadership and the Problem of Accountability

#4: Self-Awareness and Self-Handicapping Leadership

#5: Tunnel Vision – Its Drawbacks and How to Stay Clear of it

#6: How to Skyrocket Employee Motivation and Engagement

#7: Be Best at the Managerial Decision Making Process

#8: Importance of Communication for Leadership and Management

#9 Talent Development Planning and How to Get it Right?

#10 Are you Micromanaging? STOP IT. See Why

#11 Driving for Outstanding Business Results

#12 Exemplary Leadership Practices – one Step at the Time





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