What Escaping a Taco Bell Brawl Taught Me About Self-Awareness as a Leader

UPDATED: May 23, 2023
PUBLISHED: July 7, 2017
leader journaling to improve his self-awareness

Back in my college days at Purdue University, my friends and I were winding down a fairly mundane night of painting the town red when we decided to cap things off with a trip to Taco Bell. But rather than peacefully wait for his burrito, my quite inebriated friend decided to pick a fight with some fellow diners.

This already might seem like a bad idea, but it gets worse: His targets were three offensive linemen from the Purdue football team. It’s important to note this exchange happened during the Drew Brees era at Purdue, so these guys were absolute beasts, all surpassing 6 feet and 300 pounds. Although the only outcome I could see involved a trip to the hospital, my overconfident friend kept trying to take a swing at these powerhouses.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. We managed to get our burritos and escape unscathed. My friend clearly had a bad case of hubris, along with an overestimation of my ability to take “the smaller guy.” What I couldn’t foresee was how this near-death experience would serve as an important reference point as I developed my leadership skills.

Beware of super-leader syndrome.

Taken literally, my Taco Bell incident doesn’t seem to have much application in the business world. But when you think about it, overconfidence in the workplace can have harsh consequences. I’m frequently amazed by the significant blind spots business leaders have when it comes to their own abilities.

It’s a bit of a superhero complex or, more appropriately, a super-leader syndrome. Leaders who believe they’re solely responsible for the fate of their company, their community or the world aren’t living in reality. No one runs to the nearest phone booth, rips off their business attire and flies off to save the day. Instead, leaders may find increased success with an engaged network of people contributing to the larger goal.

Hubris, characterized by excessive self-confidence, has the potential to create barriers to successful leadership. For example, overconfident leaders may rely too much on their own perspectives in the workplace.

How a lack of self-awareness as a leader impacts employees

Early in my career, I had a supervisor who talked incessantly about his superior leadership skills. He routinely noted how our director wasted time in meetings on discussion and building consensus. Even though our team was the most productive in the company, my supervisor was adamant he had a better way to lead.

He finally had a chance to put his money where his mouth was after he was named interim lead following our director’s promotion. I watched as he led meetings like a dictator, telling team members what to do and when to do it. He didn’t consider anyone else’s opinions because of his hubris. Our meetings were much more efficient, but the group’s productivity and morale both plummeted. After observing the difference in leadership styles, I was not surprised when he didn’t land the permanent job.

More recently, I worked with an executive who wanted our company to help create a performance-management model to address high turnover at her company. We started by conducting an assessment to understand the causes of the turnover. It pointed us to underlying corporate issues that performance-management solutions wouldn’t affect. The CEO believed she knew better, ignored our findings and directed us to deliver what she had requested. 

I can almost guarantee this company is still dealing with high turnover. Until she gets her ego in check, employees will continue to leave the company. When a leader shuts down discussion and alternative points of view like that, it’s possible they are dealing with a disproportionate sense of confidence.

How to improve your self-awareness as a leader

When you understand your strengths and where you need help, you can better assess and respond to situations in a way that actually suits the needs of your employees. Whether you are just getting started in your career or are a longtime leader, it may be helpful to regularly examine how your self-assessment stacks up against how others perceive you. Start with these five steps to improve your self-awareness as a leader:

1. Get feedback from people you trust.

Feedback is essential. It provides the challenges and checks that every leader needs, as well as benefiting your employees. But when you’re in a position of power, it may be difficult to find someone willing to be brutally honest with you. I suggest turning to your significant other or a close colleague. Sit down with a person who knows you well and whom you trust implicitly. Ask them to tell you one or two things you don’t know about yourself. If you’re willing to truly listen—not just smile and nod—be prepared for surprises. This sort of dialogue is an ideal way to reinforce that it’s impossible to see ourselves the way others do.

2. Use a 360 review to help build self-awareness as a leader.

When possible, seek a 360-degree assessment that involves performance feedback from a gamut of people—your supervisor, your peers, your direct reports, your customers, etc. You’ll also have a chance to weigh in. It can be enlightening to compare your self-assessment to how others perceive you, as long as you’re willing to be open to feedback and to set your ego aside in order to truly take in the criticism. I’ve seen people cry when they see how much higher others scored them. I’ve also seen tears when the opposite has occurred.

3. Meditation can help build self-awareness as a leader.

If you’re struggling with self-awareness, a daily meditation routine can offer a practical way to recenter your brain. Spending a few minutes on the train or between appointments in quiet contemplation may teach you about yourself and help to improve your well-being. When you focus on clearing your mind, it can be informative to note the seemingly random thoughts that pop into your head. By acknowledging them, you’ll begin to understand your own thought patterns. As a bonus, studies show a connection between meditation and numerous health benefits.

4. Build self-awareness as a leader through journaling.

Journaling is another great way to enhance your self-awareness as a leader. Jotting down how you react to different situations, what you’re thinking and how you feel during your daily routine creates an invaluable record of what’s going on inside your brain. Once you’ve tracked things for a while, periodically review your insights to understand how you think instead of just what you think. If capturing your thoughts in writing doesn’t come naturally, try finding some prompts to help you start journaling.

5. Determine your type.

Psychometric assessment tools, such as IQ tests or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, can offer some insight into why you do what you do. Having quantifiable information provides important validation of the inputs from steps one through four, and the results may just trigger a true epiphany. I’ve seen the Myers-Briggs introvert or extrovert typing results completely change a person’s understanding of themselves, how they see the world and how they approach leadership.

Truly great leaders are able to check their egos at the door. Whether it’s the door to Taco Bell or the door leading to the boardroom, be vigilant about building self-awareness as a leader. Knowing yourself is key to the success of yourself and others.

This article was updated May 2023. Photo by Just Life/Shutterstock

Brett Morgan is a senior associate at gothamCulture. He has more than 15 years of leadership and learning development experience, with a strategic focus on achieving learning objectives. Follow gothamCulture on Twitter.