The Self-Aware CEO: Managing Your Personal Brand

Business is becoming ever-more personal. Today’s leading companies have human faces: to think of Facebook is to think of Mark Zuckerberg; to hear Amazon is to call to mind Jeff Bezos.

Exemplifying this trend is the recent rise of the ‘rockstar’ CEO: extroverted, charismatic figureheads - like Tesla’s Elon Musk, or Adam Neumann, formally of WeWork - whose fame equals and often exceeds that of the organisations they lead. They don’t confine themselves to the boardroom or the shareholder conference call. They deliver lectures, befriend celebrities, host lavish parties and tend to wear a lot of black. In such cases, the line between a personal and a business brand blurs; sometimes so much so that the former begins to determine the latter. They’re an extreme exemplar of the rule that, for business leaders of today, personal brand management is as much a business priority as it is a PR exercise.

A strong personal brand can be an enormous asset: particularly if it complements the core values and ethos of the organisation. What we might call Musk’s strengths of character  - his intellectual curiosity, tireless work ethic and grand utopian vision - helped to augment the image of Tesla as a mould-breaking powerhouse of innovation. Yet, imprudently built or carelessly handled, a personal brand can just as easily become a hindrance. Musk’s all-too-evident eccentricities have seen Tesla’s stock price rise and fall in line with his often erratic behaviour. Adam Neumann is another case in point. His studiously idiosyncratic, supremely self-assured persona - part hippie-guru, part jet-set-playboy - influenced WeWork’s mission to transcend and transform the rental sector. Yet an image calculated to convey confidence could just easily register as arrogance: fuelling speculation that his projections about the company’s worth and potential for growth didn’t match reality, ultimately forcing him to resign as CEO to ensure its survival. 

These cautionary tales have a common moral: that what most often distinguishes an effective personal brand from a dysfunctional one is self-awareness. Without the ability to step back and view themselves objectively - to recognise weaknesses as well as strengths - leaders will never have control over their own image, persisting in behaviours and practices that ultimately damage not just their own brand, but the business as a whole.

Our species has long recognised the importance of self-awareness: summarised in Socrates’ famous maxim that life’s ultimate goal is to ‘know thyself’. Yet those seeking to become more self-aware face two considerable barriers. Firstly, there’s the inherent difficulty in knowing how others might see us; secondly, the challenge of truly understanding what’s going on in our own heads. Overcoming both of these requires regular, concerted effort. At The School of Life, we teach teams and professionals practical ways of gaining key emotional skills for succeeding in business, of which self-awareness is one of the most crucial. Here are three of our suggestions for becoming more self-aware. 

  1. Encouraging Feedback

Leaders need to gain an accurate understanding of how they are seen by others, both within and outside the organisation. To do so, they must actively encourage feedback - the more honest the better. Receiving honest feedback is particularly challenging for those in leadership positions: the more power and influence you have, the less likely you are to be offered genuine, unvarnished criticism of your decisions, management style or character. Creating a dedicated safe space for feedback is therefore essential. Regularly scheduled meetings can help foster an internal culture that values honesty over tact. Prompts for feedback should be open-ended rather than leading to ensure the greatest possible variety and veracity of responses. Allowing for anonymous feedback - perhaps through surveys, or an independent intermediary - can prompt colleagues and employees to deliver truths they’d be reluctant to say face to face. The self-aware leaders may not agree with their critics, but they are always aware of their views: adapting their behaviour and taking decisions in light of them.

  1. Overcoming Projection

Curbing a leader’s ability to view themselves objectively is our natural tendency towards projection. Our minds arrive at definitive conclusions based on incomplete evidence. We might decide, for example, that a department approves of a new policy based on the amount of nodding we observed when we announced it; that an employee is unhappy with their contract on the strength of their handshake. Leaders need to develop a healthy suspicion of their own certainties, and always seek to identify the source of their beliefs. The self-aware leader is necessarily a little sceptical of their own judgement; always seeking as many different points of view as possible before arriving at a definitive course of action. 

  1. Clarifying Thinking

Much about our true character remains hidden from us: forged long ago in early childhood, kept buried in our subconscious. To bring it into greater focus, leaders should give themselves the time and space to properly examine the contents of their minds. For those without the time or inclination to try psychotherapy, more practical alternatives exist. It might be as simple as keeping a diary or journal: verbalising our thoughts forces us to get specific about their true content and import. At The School of Life, we teach a technique called Philosophical Meditation, a simple three-step process for gaining clarity around your upsets, anxieties and hopes. 

Gaining self-awareness is not an easy feat - indeed, it might be called the job of a lifetime. But it remains a key requirement of effective leadership. Rather than aspiring to be rockstars, business leaders should instead aim to emulate therapists: thoughtful, dispassionate analysts of their own characters.