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The biggest mistake that CEOs like Uber's Travis Kalanick make

Travis Kalanick, chief executive officer of Uber Technologies.
Michel Porro | Getty Images
Travis Kalanick, chief executive officer of Uber Technologies.

Uber recently announced it had fired 20 of its senior leaders and the board is reportedly considering a leave of absence for CEO and founder Travis Kalanick following an investigation into harassment and other inappropriate behavior at the ride-hailing company.

The company's aggressive, win-at-all-costs culture may have contributed to its early successes, but it's become more of an Achilles heel as the company has grown and matured.

Like so many rock-star entrepreneurs who shoot to success only to fall from grace, Kalanick has demonstrated a lack of the most critical (yet least understood) skill in the business world: self-awareness.

Most people know, at least intellectually, that self-delusion is bad and self-insight is good. It's a conclusion that research bears out: People who know who they are and how they're seen tend to make smarter business decisions, build stronger relationships, demonstrate better leadership, and even lead more profitable companies.

"Managers who lack self-awareness, for example, are 600 percent more likely to derail."

Take self-awareness superstar and former Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who presided over one of the most dramatic business turnarounds in American history. He calls self-awareness (at the individual, team and organizational level) the "single greatest opportunity for continual growth, improvement and performance."

So far, so good. Regrettably, though, what most business leaders don't realize is that they're simply not as self-aware as they think. In my three-year research program studying self-awareness, I've found that although 95 percent of people believe they see themselves clearly, the real number is closer to 10-15 percent. So at best, 80 percent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we're lying to ourselves!

Such deception brings with it very real consequences, especially for leaders. Managers who lack self-awareness, for example, are 600 percent more likely to derail. And the higher up you go on the corporate food chain, the more expensive this becomes . Having the wrong CEO at the helm can cost millions of dollars.

Sometimes, un-self-aware leaders don't start out that way. Rather, their lack of self-awareness can grow in lockstep with their rank, senior­ity, and success. Early triumphs give way to intoxicating pride, and the sycophants they surround themselves with do nothing to dispel their delusions. (Sometimes they can succeed for a while—after all, many an "arrogant jerk" has built a successful "unicorn" company—but it's not a matter of if, but when, it will come back to bite them.)

What's more, as a leader's power increases, so does their degree of overestimation. Compared to managers and front-line leaders, for example, executives more dramatically overvalue their empathy, adaptability, coaching, col­laboration, and (ironically) self-awareness skills. What might be even more shocking, though, is that compared to their less experienced coun­terparts, experienced leaders are more likely to overestimate their abili­ties.

But it's not just the executives who breed their own delusion—boards reward it too. Overconfident CEOs tend to be paid more than their peers, and as their compensation packages grow, so do their levels of over­confidence.

This delusion, however, doesn't have to be permanent. I've coached many an executive who has realized these deficiencies—often after analyzing their most epic failures—before it's too late. Perhaps the silver lining to Uber's recent challenges is that they've helped Kalanick finally grasp his own. In recent months, he's shared his intentions to be more open, humble and authentic. He's stated that he will "fundamentally change as a leader" and is committed to "get[ting] better every day."

Yet this might be easier said than done. Leaders who take focused action to increase their self-awareness may not end up with any more insight than they began with. Part of the problem is that many of the things people think increase self-awareness—like introspection, therapy, and journaling—have been shown to have a shockingly small, or even negative, impact. What's more, when we spend so much time gazing inward, we might completely miss the equally important reality of how we're coming across to others.

But there is good news. After spending the last three years studying leaders (and others) who've made dramatic transformations in their level of self-awareness, I've found that unquestionably, it can be done. And though the process is a bit more complicated than most management gurus would have you believe, the key is to avoid the often hidden roadblocks and traps.

Here are a few suggestions to see yourself more clearly as a leader:

  1. Look forward, not backward: There's a surprising body of research showing that introspection (i.e., examining our deepest thoughts, feelings, and motives) doesn't increase self-awareness. In fact, we can't unlock many of our innermost secrets, no matter how hard we try—and trying can depress and paralyze us. The next time you face a problem, don't look backward ("I'm mean to my employees because my father was mean to me as a child!")—instead, try to spot actionable patterns that can inform your choices moving forward ("I seem to yell at my employees when I feel like my competence is being challenged. How can I avoid that in the future?").
  2. Hold a dinner of truth: Because others see us more objectively than we see ourselves, feedback is essential for leaders wanting to see themselves clearly. And if your team isn't comfortable telling you the truth, you can start with your friends and family. Find a loved one who will be honest with you, invite them to dinner and ask, "what do I do that's most annoying to you?" The answer may surprise you, and will almost certainly apply at work just as much as it does at home.
  3. Come clean to your team: The most efficient and effective way to open the channels of feedback in your team is to bring them into your journey. Try a little vulnerability: state your commitment to see yourself more clearly, share your plan to get there, and ask for help.
  4. Reward truth telling: Successful, self-aware leaders surround themselves with people who call them out. Find, develop and promote the smart, competent truth-tellers in your organization and reward them for it. Give them public opportunities to practice this honesty—and when they do, show gratitude for and openness to what they're saying.
  5. Get a coach: As long as you hire a good one, investing in an executive coach can give you a powerful boost of self-awareness, and therefore a huge return on investment (ROI). They can collect candid, confidential feedback, challenge you to question your assumptions and look at others' perspectives, and help you be accountable for making progress. If there was ever a "hack" for leader self-awareness, this is probably it.

It's a little early to tell if Kalanick's commitment to self-awareness and self-improvement is wishful thinking, too little too late, or PR smoke and mirrors. If Kalanick follows through, it could be the most important choice he ever makes as CEO. When we learn to see ourselves clearly, it can be surprising, or terrifying, or even gratifying—but no matter what, it gives us the power to improve.

Commentary by Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times best-selling author ("Bankable Leadership"). Her second book, which was recently released, is "Insight: Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life." Follow her on Twitter @tashaeurich.

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