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Know thyself 101

THE RECENT interest in self-awareness among students and executives stems from the recognition that unless we begin to know who we are, the likelihood for personal or professional success is minimal. In a society where honest feedback is rare and our desire to please others is deeply rooted, we can often lose a sense of our true self. It was Sun Tzu who stated in his famous book, ''The Art of War," written more than 2,000 years ago, that knowing oneself is half the battle. Learning how to regulate our behavior when we interact with others remains a distant frontier in the landscape of the human condition. How, then, can we best learn our strengths and weaknesses?

The market today is flooded with numerous instruments on knowing oneself. Many of these are statistically unreliable and often misleading. When misused by companies, these personality tests can at times do more harm than good. Some companies, so enamored of the testing they've done, have even urged employees to post their personality type on their desks so others would know how to relate to them. What these organizations fail to recognize is that by adapting such an approach they prevent their employees from becoming more than their label.

However, there are some instruments that, when properly administered and carefully facilitated, can enhance an individual's self-awareness. Furthermore, knowing oneself can serve as a solid base for exploring ways to become a better leader when dealing with conflicts, interacting with difficult people, and motivating others.

At the Center for Public Leadership, which is part of the JFK School of Government at Harvard University, we invite graduate students to go through eight workshops to learn more about themselves. The program begins with a discussion of the difference between good and bad leadership. Then we administer a battery of assessment instruments. These include an in-depth Myers-Briggs test that identifies personality type and also indicates one's propensity toward problem-solving and decision-making. The LEAD instrument reveals leadership style, ranging from command and control to delegate and empower. We then use a powerful instrument known as TIP, which assesses the way the mind focuses on thinking patterns. The Thomas Kilmann tool determines our orientation to conflict.

One of the most important instruments we use is the 360-degree feedback, a popular tool in business and government, which focuses on specific elements of successful behavior. Participants are asked to submit the names of people who have a good knowledge of their behavior -- these might include peers, employees, bosses, clients, friends, and even family members. These people rate the participant, providing suggestions for improvement, which he then can compare with his own self-assessment. Through group and personal coaching, students learn to change self-defeating behaviors.

One former student, now an executive in a large organization, went through a 360-degree feedback. He was amazed to learn that he was not a good listener, that he talked more than he should, and that his sporadic temper derailed employees from focusing on their mission. As a result of the feedback, he posted signs inside the door of his office, instructing him to ''Listen more. Talk Less. Trust More. Watch Your Temper." Over time, the dialogue between the executive, and his team became more open and honest. He believes that the change in his own behavior has improved morale and performance.

The beauty of these instruments is their neutrality. Participants know the results are for their eyes only, so they can be completely honest. And by getting to know their true selves, they are then able to prepare for the challenges of leadership in both the public and the private sector. We must remember, however, that these instruments of self-testing are merely mirrors of our personality, and like all mirrors, they distort.

Students and executives understand that they work in a rapidly changing world. They also recognize being unaware of oneself and oblivious to others can be costly. Statistics and numbers can be manipulated, but real progress can result from an honest dialogue. Their willingness to use these instruments enhances their ability to work efficiently with others. Being able to encourage candor and risk-taking requires confidence, which is inevitably the result of self-awareness.

Shalom Saada Saar is a senior fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. 

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