By Steve Swavely, PH.D. & Patrick Gallagher, PH.D.

Red hand reaching into someones head grabbing where there brain should be but instead there are question marks

Deep, authentic self-awareness can be the key that enables leaders to reach their highest potential.

Even with a long résumé of successes and qualifications, every leader has something they cannot seem to master. Perhaps your organization’s teams cannot consistently collaborate at top efficiency. Maybe it is a tendency to lose your cool or altogether avoid stressful interactions with employees.

Such lingering pain points can limit a leader’s level of accomplishment. What could be the cause? Most people have subtle, unexamined motivations or beliefs that can sabotage relationships and derail success. In other words, you are probably up against barriers within yourself that you do not even know are there.

Unlocking stubborn areas where you fall just short requires a deep, honest, objective examination and understanding of your core self. Gaining this self-awareness could be the key to reaching the pinnacle
of success as a leader.

The Increasing Importance of Self-Awareness

Deep self-awareness becomes progressively more crucial throughout a career. Daily duties evolve and expectations grow for a rising leader. The criteria by which you are judged are no longer “has a talent for” or “has great potential.” It is now “must deliver substantial results.”

Delivering those results requires that you finally unlock those stubborn pain points and figure out those shortcomings you might have worked around in the past. True self-awareness uncovers the root causes of your thoughts and behaviors, and thus the root causes of the outcomes you are getting (or not getting) from the teams you lead. This is how better self-awareness can push your performance past what you might have thought were your limits.


To appreciate the vital importance of self-awareness, it helps to consider unawareness and its consequences.

Self-limiting beliefs are fundamental, often unconscious, beliefs about your abilities that stunt your achievement. We all have a set of beliefs about what we do well, what we can achieve and where our abilities fall short. Many of these beliefs can be accurate, but some are not. Some were acquired during particularly formative times even in childhood. For example, a parent might have believed you would never achieve the highest levels of success and you internalized that belief. Such a belief could push you to avoid all but “sure things,” causing you to miss out on hundreds of opportunities to advance in your career.

Blind spots are stubborn biases or cognitive tendencies that lead to repeated mistakes. A host of well-documented thinking biases color the decisions we make daily. One striking example is the confirmation bias. This is an unconscious tendency to perceive and remember information that supports your current opinions and selectively ignore opposing information. The confirmation bias happens outside your awareness – so even with the best intentions to be objective, your brain can still filter out opposing information or over-weight supporting information.

You likely never even think about or examine self-limiting beliefs or blind spots, but they can influence a wide range of thoughts and behaviors.


Building true self-awareness requires a deliberate, frank examination of deep beliefs, cognitive patterns and automatic behaviors. This is unlikely to happen naturally in the course of the typical executive’s career path. It takes time and it takes familiarity with sound psychological science. Some crucial components of gaining self-awareness are:

  • Identifying beliefs, biases and blind spots influencing your career. This normally requires getting out of the normal work context and engaging in substantial introspection, ideally guided by a coach or counselor.
  • Understanding the consequences of your self-limiting beliefs. This requires structured feedback from colleagues and subordinates, and appreciating how your self-limiting beliefs and blind spots affect your relationships.
  • Analyzing how self-limiting beliefs and blind spots are operating day-to-day. This includes identifying how to redeploy energy away from destructive behaviors and towards better outcomes.
  • An action plan to correct the effects of self-limiting beliefs. Such a plan should lay out concrete actions to be taken to correct the consequences of self-limiting beliefs.


Self-awareness is a key competency that helps leaders overcome self-limiting beliefs and blind spots that can stunt a career. A science-based, immersive, introspective process is necessary to make sustainable gains in your level of self-awareness. Improved self-awareness can make the difference in rising leaders achieving at their highest level.

About the Authors

Steve Swavely, Ph.D.

Steve Swavely, Ph.D.

Senior Vice President, Corporate Leadership Consulting Manager

Steve Swavely leads development and delivery of corporate leadership development consulting services to The BB&T Leadership Institute’s clients. Swavely earned his doctorate in clinical neuropsychology from Georgia State University.

Patrick Gallagher, Ph.D.

Patrick Gallagher, Ph.D.

Vice President, Senior Consultant

In his role as senior consultant for talent consulting, Patrick Gallagher is responsible for measuring and analyzing employee engagement, measuring the results and impact of all programs and conducting original research. Gallagher earned his doctorate in social psychology from Duke University.