Building awareness: Lessons from a dancing bear

It was James Thurber who said, “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.” This started me thinking about  how important awareness is in leadership and in life. And, it reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago about building awareness in organisations. So, as a refresher, here it is again.

The other day I came across this little film clip that was, I gather, designed to draw our attention to the need for vigilance on the road. It made me think about how easy it is to miss what’s going on, even when it’s right in front of us. Please watch the film. It takes less than a minute. Honest.

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How’d you do?  Did you get the number of passes right? I did. In fact, I felt quite proud of myself until I realised what I had missed. I was too busy concentrating on getting the numbers right to notice. It happens.

This concentration on one thing to the exclusion of everything else happens to leaders too and yet I think we know that a leader’s job is never about just one thing. It’s about a whole whack of things that go on around them all of the time and often at the same time. Consequently, building awareness about themselves, their environment and those around them is a pretty big deal. And, it’s a big deal that often makes the difference between success and failure.

The truth is that while a few people may be particularly gifted with a keen sense of awareness, most of us need help.  Blind spots abound.  So what to do?

Well, whether you are working on improving your selfcultural or social awareness, just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole company to build awareness and to use what comes from it for the benefit of everyone involved.

Practically speaking, leaders who know the value of building awareness tend to do these four things to encourage and grow it in their organisations:

Invite: We are each provided with one pair of eyes, one pair of ears and one voice. It only makes sense to invite more eyes, ears and voices to participate in achieving clarity of purpose and a common understanding of what’s important and why. Multiple observations contribute to the formation of a shared picture and the awareness of the organisation as a dynamic body, always changing and moving toward the accomplishment of shared goals.

Inquire: Sometimes it is simply a matter of admitting when we don’t know something and asking others to help fill in the blanks. This is particularly true when it comes to building self-awareness. Enlightenment in these areas admittedly can be painful at times but also self-affirming. And, the truth is, the more we know about ourselves the better able we are to navigate the rough and the smooth without having to spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about ourselves.

Include: Often, it is tempting to gather around us only those who think like we do. We like it because, well, it just feels more comfortable. But, building awareness in organisations is not about comfort or even being agreeable all the time. It’s about getting a grip on what’s real and about creating depth of understanding that not only strengthens the organisation but also the people it serves.

Intuition: Ah yes, the third eye – OK, maybe not. But intuition often plays a part in building awareness. It is sometimes not what is said but what is not said that seems the most obvious. While operating from intuition alone can be a dangerous thing, there are times when those gut feelings serve a very useful purpose.  In fact, combined with inquiry and inclusion, it is a very powerful tool.

The bottom line is this: one person cannot see everything. Building awareness in organisations must be a collective effort with participation from many and diverse people. Leaders who value the eyes, ears and voices of those around them will be unlikely to miss the moonwalking bear too often.

That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think? 


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