Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a revolutionary and one of the most iconic figures of our time, wrote in a letter to Winnie Mandela in 1981, “Learn to know yourself… to search realistically and regularly the processes of your mind and feelings.”

Mandela’s dictum is important for executives at the board and senior level to heed and cultivate their self-awareness, which begins with learning to know oneself. It is a complicated and personal process. We have to accept and acknowledge this. It is not surprising then that many are not inclined to spend time on self-reflection; the consequence of this is that they have a relatively low level of self-awareness. However, just because the process of cultivating self-awareness is challenging, we cannot ignore its necessity.

We operate in a dynamic and ever-changing environment that continually requires an outward focus of our time and attention. This adds a layer of complexity and creates a barrier that prevents us from focusing inward, leaving very little energy and clarity of mind. As a result, we forget to or don’t listen to others.

When leaders do not listen, with the intention to hear and to understand, they hold silo perspectives and opinions driven by self-interest which impacts their ability to engage in productive and healthy strategic debates.”

We need to be able to consider things from multiple perspectives. It increases our ability to think in a more integrated way, with a level of ethical consciousness that drives better decisions. Listening to others is too often taken for granted because the focus is on the response to present a view rather than seeking to understand first.

When we lack good listening skills, self-awareness is also not present. Directors, being responsible for pulling the organisation in new directions spend a significant amount of their time

in boardrooms, making strategic and operational decisions that will have a long-lasting impact. It is in the essence of being in the boardroom that listening skills are critical, but that does require a sense of self-awareness to be able to hold multiple perspectives. Companies play an integral part in society, the very decisions they drive, affect society and vice versa.

To look inward is a way to examine one’s modus operandi. Cultivating self-awareness takes deliberate action and reflection of self; acknowledge the need to develop it. When the company’s leaders understand themselves, they can listen to their managers and people better. They become better examples of how to lead and become better at engaging in courageous conversations and respectful debates that will lead to better decisions.

At the core of King IV is the drive to achieve fundamental shifts in corporate behaviour: from short-term to a long-term focus, from financial capitalism to inclusive capitalism, from being single-minded to a focus on stakeholder management. If we are to shift corporate behaviour, we need a shift in the behaviour of the leaders who drive the business.

When integrating the leader’s self-awareness, with the leader’s areas of knowledge, skills and experience, it becomes a powerful insight into how leaders can have purposeful conversations

in the boardroom. Directors need to have the requisite intellectual curiosity, self-awareness, passion and focus that are required to drive good business, and good governance with heart.

Published in Directorship – July | August | September 2018

Leaders can start by learning what makes them tick by considering the following: