Know Yourself and Seek Self-Improvement

My first encounter with the U.S. Navy’s leadership framework came when I was barely 18 years old. I was young and eager to do well as a new midshipman in Villanova University’s Navy ROTC program. Like everyone else starting at college, I was also trying to adjust to the basics of education and life away from home. Unlike our fellow freshmen, however, we midshipmen were also beginning our introduction to military service. 

Part of that initial training involved memorizing numerous facts. 

Facts about ranks, facts about weapons, facts about history.

And facts about leadership. Quite a few useful models of leadership behaviors and traits exist across all of the U.S. military branches, but one that I’ve revisited lately is the U.S. Navy’s Leadership Principles. They’re virtually the same as principles claimed by other services (such as the U.S. Army), but given that I learned them from the Navy—in fact, I had to memorize all of them in order at some point during that first year—I’m attributing them to my particular branch of service.

I think you’ll find that they’re fairly universal and full of good advice—regardless of whether the context is the government, a non-profit or any part of the private sector. 

Here are all 11:

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement
  2. Be technically and tactically proficient (read more)
  3. Know your people and look out for their welfare (read more)
  4. Keep your people informed (read more)
  5. Set the example
  6. Make sure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished
  7. Train your unit as a team
  8. Make sound and timely decisions
  9. Develop a sense of responsibility among your people
  10. Employ your command in accordance with its capabilities
  11. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

I appreciate the discipline and attention to detail that it takes to memorize 11 sentences, but doing so can come at the detriment of wrestling with what each one actually means. 

So let’s focus for a moment on the first one—“Know yourself and seek self-improvement.”

For me, this principle is fundamental to leadership for three big reasons. 

First, if you want others to follow you, you must have a sense for your strengths and your weaknesses. You need to know when you can be fully confident in your own thought processes and decisions, and when you need to rely more on the counsel and input of others. You also need to know what types of people you need around you in order to complement what you can and cannot do well. Knowing yourself also involves understanding how other people might perceive you. This requires some honesty about your tendencies. 

Second, seeking self-improvement is critical because any leader who thinks he or she knows it all is doomed to learn the truth the hard way. Taking frequent, systematic steps to learn more about one’s area or practice one’s skills allows you to avoid the stagnancy of arrogance, and it keeps you informed about new and better ways to act. It also sets a great example for the people around you. 

Third, both attempting to know yourself and seeking self-improvement require humility. Both parts of this principle demand that you’re honest with yourself and that you open yourself up to the possibility that you don’t have it all figured out yet. For the past few semesters, I’ve taught a class on managerial skill development—and the students who benefit the most from the class are those who approach the class (or quickly acquire) a sense of humble curiosity. 

Knowing yourself—or becoming self-aware—and seeking self-improvement are lifelong endeavors. There are no silver bullets. But for developing your self-awareness, assessments (valid personality questionnaires and multi-rater feedback instruments), coaching, and mentoring can help. For self-improvement? Read, read, read—and surround yourself with smart people from whom you can learn.

As I say to my students, when you find that you’re the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find a new room. 

What else has worked for you regarding knowing yourself and seeking self-improvement? 

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.