Self-awareness is the Gift that keeps on Giving for Women Leaders

7 April 2024, IOL Business Report

In today's dynamic world, leadership is no longer about barking orders from the top. It's about inspiring, motivating, and navigating complex situations with a clear head and a strong heart. For women leaders, who often navigate unique challenges, the gift of self-awareness is an invaluable asset.

My Story

A few years ago I was headhunted for an executive role. Even though I had the required qualifications I felt an extreme need to prove myself (for various reasons). I so easily forgot that I had been headhunted and went through a rigorous recruitment process. As I got into the job I focused on proving myself to my board and colleagues.

So what did I do? I focused on the tasks of improving the organisational systems and processes which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. However, I lost sight of the people resulting in a parallel channel of power that had the ear of the board. Next thing I know I receive an email about a probationary assessment that was never discussed with me. Long story short, we parted ways on not so amicable terms. It felt catastrophic… but it was necessary.

This situation led to my life falling apart and I literally experienced the much talked about mid life crisis at 45. My life was always given meaning through my professional achievements. It was what I measured myself against. I was hardworking, diligent, competent, experienced, self-motivated and would always go the extra mile for my work. When I lost that I lost myself…. for many months.

Eventually I reached out to a coach that I knew would challenge me while helping me to move out of the funk I was in. In the beginning of the coaching journey I was open about what “they” did to me; how they undermined and disrespected me! My coach helped me to look beyond blaming others to exploring and investigating my own way of seeing the world; and how my actions (or lack of it) may have contributed to aforementioned life crisis - voila self-awareness!

Through this journey of inner work that laid bare my default patterns and blind spots, shaped by my childhood experience and consequent survival strategies,  I started understanding myself better and understood the things about myself that stood in the way of me having self-acceptance for who I am - no work, no perfectionism, no seeking the recognition of others - just being.

Seeing myself through the lens of self-awareness led me on a journey of self-discovery that enabled me to bring significant transformation to not only to my professional life,  but also my intimate relationships  and my relationship money..

This path is long and never ending, so instead of focusing on reaching the end of the road, I am staying present to the process without judgement (mostly) and leaning into proactive self-management and empathy as key tools to support me. I also still reach out to a Coach ( or therapist)  to serve a mirror that can help me when things become a bit wobbly. 

What is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness is the ability to introspectively recognise and understand one's emotions, behaviours, and thought patterns, and how it affects your life and your relationship with others. For a leader, this translates to:

  • Emotional Intelligence: Recognising and managing your own emotions, while also being attuned to the emotions of those around you. This fosters empathy, a crucial trait for building strong relationships and creating a positive work environment.
  • Effective Communication: Understanding your communication style allows you to tailor your message to different audiences and situations. This ensures clear and concise communication, avoiding misunderstandings and fostering trust.
  • Strategic Decision Making: Self-awareness allows you to identify your biases and blind spots, leading to more objective and well-rounded decisions.


Women leaders often face a double bind. They are expected to be assertive yet nurturing, decisive yet collaborative. Yet women’s authentic leadership can transform the culture of workplaces.  Self-awareness empowers women to navigate these expectations with confidence, allowing them to:

  • Challenge the Imposter Syndrome:  Doubting oneself is a common experience, but self-awareness helps women leaders recognize their accomplishments and silence the inner critic.
  • Embrace Their Authentic Leadership Style: Women don't have to conform to a masculine leadership stereotype. Self-awareness allows them to find their own voice and lead in a way that feels genuine and effective.
  • Build Stronger Relationships: By understanding their own communication style and emotional triggers, women leaders can build stronger connections with colleagues, fostering a more positive and productive work environment.

A healthy sense of self-awareness can support women leaders to recognise when they do need to “change”, but also when the system is playing them.  Many women struggle to recognise their self-worth which has long term consequences for their life and wellbeing - through the journey of self-awareness we are able to accept ourselves warts and all.

In the realm of leadership, the value of self-awareness cannot be overstated. Self-awareness serves as the foundation upon which great leaders build their success and survival. This essential trait not only enhances decision-making and communication but also fosters personal growth and resilience. My journey of self-awareness has helped me to understand how my way of seeing the world is only one way of seeing the world. Now, instead of sulking when someone is confrontational, I examine the situation as a transformation catalyst that listens to understand, and works towards a mutually beneficial outcome.

Leaders who possess a high degree of self-awareness are better equipped to navigate the challenges of their roles. They understand their strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to make informed decisions, build effective teams, and adapt their leadership style to different situations. This is gospel!

Research underscores the positive impact of self-awareness on leadership effectiveness. According to a study by the Korn Ferry Institute, executives with higher levels of self-awareness tend to outperform their peers. In fact, their companies also exhibit better financial performance, demonstrating a clear correlation between self-awareness and organisational success.

Cultivating the Gift of Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a journey, not a destination. Here are some tips for (women) leaders to cultivate this invaluable quality:

  • Seek feedback: Actively solicit feedback from trusted colleagues, mentors, and even direct reports. This provides valuable insights into how you are perceived.
  • Journaling: Regular journaling allows you to reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This can help you identify patterns and gain a deeper understanding of yourself.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
  • Incorporating mindfulness practices and regular self-reflection into daily routines can significantly enhance self-awareness. Taking a few moments each day to assess emotions, reactions, and thoughts helps leaders identify patterns and triggers, leading to more intentional responses.
  • Strengths assessments:  Personality and strengths assessments can provide valuable insights into your natural talents and areas for growth.
  • Work with a coach: This can provide a judgement free support zone that allows you to dig deep while growing internally and externally.

I believe that self-awareness is the gift that keeps on giving, sometimes painfully but always in a way that allows for more self-compassion in how we see ourselves and others.

Shireen Motara is an African Feminist, Certified Coach and Founder CEO of Tara Transform and The Next Chapter.




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