Introspection, self-awareness, & other soft skills: The new leadership toolbox

If there’s one thing we’ve learned during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s how to be alone with ourselves. The amount of solitude we’ve had during the quarantine has given us time and space for introspection. As we transition into the “new normal,” we should incorporate what we’ve learned about ourselves into our daily lives in order to create a better normal. In this phase of recovery, the new leadership toolbox is all about better understanding ourselves and others on an emotional level.

Fueling yourself first 

In order to have enough energy to cultivate strong relationships with others, we need to fuel ourselves first. We hear it every time we board an airplane: “In case of emergency, put on your own mask first before assisting others.” Particularly in times of crisis, leaders have the added pressure of continually assisting their teams and have little time to think about themselves. But they mustn’t forget to start with their own masks. 

Jacob Morgan, the founder of The Future of Work University, says that according to research, “the more senior people get in their organizations, the less self-aware they become.” Ironically, the more influential a leader becomes, the more important self-awareness is. And even at the top level, developing these skills takes time, practice, and vulnerability. 

More specifically, it’s important that as leaders, we’re self-aware enough to recognize the situations––both at work and in our personal lives––that create anxiety or stress for us. That way, we can be emotionally and mentally prepared to respond, and avoid sending people unproductive messages

It’s not the job, it’s the boss

You’ve probably heard the expression, “People don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses.” According to Forbes, “bad bosses compel good employees to leave their jobs even when they like the company.” Leaders must set the tone of the organization, continually work on self-awareness, and create a space for their employees to develop and grow. The good news is that many companies, like Bridgewater Associates and Decurion, are now placing these learnings directly into the operating system of the company as a whole. They’re known as Deliberately Developmental Organizations, a term coined by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey Laskow. 

These leading companies share a key understanding: emotions drive people and people drive performance. As emotional beings, there should be room in the workplace to work on them, and it should be a topic at the forefront of workplace culture conversations. Emotionally intelligent companies are aware that the same trigger can lead to different responses from different employees. 

The difference is in the interpretation. Your emotional reaction depends on how you view things, and only by being aware of what triggers your reactions as a leader can you be capable of choosing a different one. A more useful one. Emotions have no right or wrong. They are simply data with specific messages to tell us. The more a leader understands this, the more effectively they can lead.

The new leadership toolbox 

Every so often, we lose our emotional balance––known as emotional hijacking. It all boils down to science. 

If we step into the brain, we’ll see the amygdala. When threatened, it activates a “fight, flight, or freeze” response––what forces us to react quickly without thinking clearly to make wise decisions. It’s normal—just a part of how our emotional system works. But an emotionally intelligent leader must take a conscious pause in between the fight, flight, or freeze response and the decision that follows. A step back to recognize what’s happening in the brain before deciding how to move forward. There are strategic tools leaders can use to do this. 

The three main tools in this leadership toolbox include:

  • Self-management

We can make a conscious choice to resist habit and swap it out for more productive behavior. Self-management means self-analysis, and understanding when to take a step back to listen to yourself before responding to others. Your thoughts will inevitably be hijacked by the amygdala, but what’s important is knowing how to respond when it does.

  • Emotional awareness 

When we actively put a name to our feelings––sadness, anger, happiness, or something else––we can build a more rational state of mind. What I’m describing is called emotional granularity: the ability to finely distinguish among feelings. Since our brain essentially constructs our emotions, we can teach it to label them more precisely and then use this detailed information to help us take the most appropriate actions.

  • Written reflection 

These first two tools are conscious but quick actions. It’s also key to take time to genuinely reflect. This can be done by writing. When you have a negative emotional experience, write it down. Identify how you felt and what you were thinking about. Thoughts trigger emotions, so when you identify them you can exchange them for other, more positive thoughts. 

Self-isolation has allowed us to actively think about our soft skills and how they’ll benefit us and our teams. We can’t change our boss or coworkers, but we can change what goes on inside our head, how we read situations, and how we respond. So once you’re back in the physical workplace, don’t forget to take time to continually self-reflect, and sharpen the tools in your emotional leadership toolbox.


maia sapsMaia Saps is a Uruguayan sociologist with experience in managing non-profit organizations and training in emotional and social Intelligence. She is now pursuing the Master in Talent Development & Human Resources at HST and is a member of the Student Advisory Board for the IE Center for Health, Well-being, & Happiness.