By John Packham

A friend of mine joined the U.S. Army back in 2000, and he told me was as green as the uniform they made him wear. His boots were too big and he stuffed them with tissue paper to avoid having to go back to stores to get a new size. He said he was afraid of everyone he met. They all seemed to have their act together and the leadership rank was very clear: privates were on the bottom. He knew that if he wanted to become worth more than the chevrons on his chest, he was going to have to earn it. The same is true of leadership in business and life, I believe. If you want to be thought of as a great leader, you need to earn that title and respect. We’ve all met our fair share of leaders who were incapable of “doing a good job” and wonder why they couldn’t see that about themselves? One of the things that make leaders great is their ability to recognize their shortcomings and continue to improve upon them. But how do you identify those shortcomings? And who even wants to point out flaws in themselves? Good leaders, that’s who.

Take a Good Look at Your Life

If you have always been at the head of the class or leading the football team to victories on the field, you’ve probably considered yourself to be a leader. But would you say you were in fact a good leader? Were you there for your teammates when they needed you? Did you provide mentoring and support to your classmates who might have been struggling with content? In the Army, everyone is teachable and can rise to their potential with the “right leadership.” In life, people claw their way to the top of imaginary ladders and leave others at the bottom to fend for themselves. Which side of the fence have you been on in your life? Have you been building others up or breaking them down? Have you showed someone how to do a math problem, or have you criticized them because they couldn’t figure it out on their own? It’s okay if you fall into the second category because the point of this exercise is to identify where your leadership skills may be lacking, so you can start to build them up.

Make a List

Take a few minutes and record the last few interactions you have had with people in your organization, or even family. What was the anticipated outcome of those interactions? How did you contribute to that outcome? What did you learn as a result of that interaction that helped you grow as a leader? Make a list of all the things you have said or done with people over the last few days and ask yourself where you could have picked up the slack more, provided more advice, or encouraged someone to push themselves outside their comfort zone a little more? Great leaders aren’t great merely because they can convince people to do things. Great leaders are considered great because they are aware of how they impact other people and how they can help those people without regard for how it will help themselves. In the Army, leaders work to provide the best service to the highest number of people, regardless of how it puts themselves in harm’s way. In the corporate world or your life, if you want to be a great leader, you need to start thinking about how you can serve others, and not how others can serve you.

Feel Your Emotions

As humans, it is often difficult for us to express our emotions to others. It seems that no matter how hard we try, it never comes out quite right. It takes a lot of vulnerability to be able to show your emotions to another person, especially if you are in a leadership position. If you want to recognize your shortcomings as a leader, let your emotions appropriately come to the surface once in a while and reflect on how you can adjust your thoughts to impact those emotions in a way that is useful to you, instead of impeding you. If you know anything about emotions at all, you know that they can stop you in your tracks, prevent progress, and keep you in a state of “stuck” for your entire life. Great leaders can push through these emotions and work in spite of them. If you are questioning your leadership skills, question your ability to manage your emotions and see how you handle yourself when the going gets tough. Do you lash out at others and blame people for the things happening around you? Or do you openly take responsibility for what is happening, even if it isn’t your fault, to find a solution for the team?


Becoming a leader doesn’t happen overnight, and many people would be shocked to find out that others consider them leaders, because they don’t see those traits in themselves. As you develop your leadership skills, it will be important to continually reflect upon the things you are doing right and the things you are doing wrong. Learning from your mistakes and being honest about your shortcomings can help you develop as a more effective leader. It’s a hard process to start, but once you get in the habit of questioning your actions, feelings, and motives, it will get easier to see the areas where you can improve your leadership skills and your life.

John Packham has grown up in a family owned business and now works as the Content Director for Karrass, a company specializing in negotiation training for businesses. John is grateful for the many opportunities he’s had to share his passion for business, leadership, and writing. John’s views are his own and do not represent those of Karrass, the US Army or government, or any other person or organization captured within this post.

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  1. I read a lot of work presented by a variety of folk about command leadership. I wonder how many of these people, and indeed the leaders they are trying to reach are like drivers. Everyone’s a good driver… I’m particularly interested in the evidence base for this work, the science (as far as it goes). For example, we talk about the value of “intuitive” decision making in complex work environments, where intuition is an expression of experience and expertise and allows us to apply heuristics to effectively overcome too little information, too much information, not enough time etc. But what about when we reach the limits of our own intuition. How good are we at recognising that? Exhorting people to be “self aware” is not particularly helpful, unless someone can point me to some evidence that shows how I should be “being more self aware” and that that method actually improves performance. Can anyone point me towards evidence-based solutions/approaches that I must have missed?

    1. Rob,
      Great questions! This is an important topic, but also complex. I do agree, telling others to “be more self-aware” is not getting results. We need to help others by equipping them with tools to achieve it.
      Ultimately, self-awareness addresses how aligned the way you think you are received by others is compared to how others actually perceive you. If there is a large gap between these, then we have an issue.
      So, how can we help? The best way to get data on the alignment between perceptions is through assessments, such as 360-degree assessments. I attempted to provide a basic framework to do that through a 4-part series I wrote about here: You can use the assessments throughout this series to compare self-assessments versus the results that your co-workers provide.
      Further, you can check out this article from Harvard Business Review:
      I hope these 2 resources help to shed some more light on your questions. Feel free to email me ( if you have further questions. I’d love to continue the conversation if you’d like.

      1. thanks for the two resources, I’ll check those out. I don’t think self-awareness is only a comparison of how we perceive ourselves versus how others perceive us, although this is obviously a component. What about the awareness required to recognise when one has “lost SA” or one’s experience and knowledge are no longer enough to address the task demands? Other related work includes the challenge of confidence and capability (and when they don’t line up: “Unskilled and unaware” (or “fat, dumb and happy” as we used to say!), the Dunning-Krueger effect. We have been involved in some work for the UK MOD on developing adaptive thinking/decision making skills and have been exploring techniques such as “self-calibration exercise” (which generates predictions of your own performance compared to post-task performance ratings…”was I as good as I thought I was going to be”?). These require a huge amount of honesty to one self. It ties in to leadership traits of “humility” (which is an interesting one for hard charging leaders and the perceived requirement for a “can-do guy/gal”). Gary A Klein (and Peter Fadde) has also recently referred to the use of techniques for “deliberate performance” (as opposed to the oft quoted development methods of “deliberate practice”) recognising that a lot of learning is “on the job” rather than in training/educational contexts. Klein suggests four techniques (see In our own work we have identified some training/development principles from the scientific literature which include principles that support the development of cognitive skills required for decision making, sensemaking, planning etc which include the requirement for “active reflection” and “flexibility-focused feedback” (which the self-calibration exercise achieves, for example). The solutions are easier to evaluate if they are principled and have evidence to back them up. I find it hard to cut through the chaff when I read some of these articles by some contributors to this field. There is absolutely a place for reflecting on experiences and sharing with others the challenges of the coal face, but there also has to be some analysis/evaluation of those opinions and experience in order to derive the lessons for future improvement, and to put some meat on the throw-away terms, motherhood-and-apple-pie statements that are used all too often without substance. Keep up the good fight!

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