The most important quality of a visionary leader: self-awareness

EL_Blog image-1This post is an excerpt from the Five Steps to Transform into a Visionary Leaders workbook. The full workbook is available as part of the Insights Leadership Info Pack.


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A recent University of Queensland study revealed that “for leaders to be seen as authentic and garner support, they need to be seen to be aware not only of who they are as individuals, but also of who they are as members of the collective they seek to lead.”

Acquiring awareness isn’t easy, yet decades in the field have taught us that the exercise is not only important, it’s critical for leaders to transform from reactive and task-focused to strategic and visionary if they’re to succeed. 

Self-aware leaders carry significant advantages that enable them to navigate different kinds of environments and situations with confidence and ease:  

  1. They incorporate self-knowledge into their development plans, empowering them to reach their goals 
  2. They identify what they need to change about their approach to influence the success of the team and the organisation 
  3. They have a greater sense of purpose about why and how they’re leading their team or organisation 

Dr Tasha Eurich’s ground breaking research in the field found that only 15% of people demonstrated true self-awareness, yet 85% of the people asked in the same survey felt there were self-aware!

That means there’s tremendous blindspots room for growth in this area.

Most leaders come to the table with a good understanding of their likes, dislikes, what they value in life and what they’d like to achieve (or perhaps only 15% of them, keeping Dr Eurich in mind). This is a good start, yet navigating the gap between reactive and visionary leadership requires understanding yourself on a deeper level.

Along with self-awareness, organisational psychologist, Dr Tanya Boyd (Insights Discovery Learning Architect), refers to a second important type of awareness for leaders which is other-awareness, or awareness of the strengths, challenges, hopes, fears, and dreams of those around you.

Both sides of this awareness coin, self and other awareness, are equally important to leadership success.  


How to gain awareness of yourself and others


Self-awareness-1 Other-awarness



At Insights, we use a four-colour model to help you understand yourself and others.  

The four colours or ‘energies’ have distinct characteristics that represent your most natural ways of behaving. Everyone has a preferred mix of all four colours; it’s this mix that creates your unique personality, and influences how you react to certain people, situations and challenges. 


Good day

Good Day

Bad day

Bad Day


The four colour energies give you a simple language to describe your behaviour, and this helps you and your colleagues understand why you do the things you do.

In the case of a reactive workplace, for example, consider how it feels to jump from fire to fire throughout the day.

Those who lead with Fiery Red energy may feel exhilarated by the constant challenge, while those with strong Cool Blue energy may feel drained and uncomfortable.  

Once you understand this, you can begin to adapt your behaviour.

For example, a manager who prefers Cool Blue energy, in understanding her need to act cautiously, deliberately and with precision, may want to study a set of data thoroughly before making a decision.

She can address that need openly with colleagues, giving her the opportunity to review important details before moving forward. This may clear a bit of space in her mind, so that when in-the-moment questions are asked, she’ll be better prepared and able to make quick decisions (though this may not feel as natural for her and therefore require more mental effort).  

As a leader, it’s important to understand how you show up to those you lead, and the language of colour can provide an effective starting point.  


Self-awareness in action

Take the example of Shane Murphy Goldsmith, President and CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles.

Shane engaged Insights to deliver Insights Discovery to the team at Liberty Hill, starting with herself (Insights Discovery is Insights’ flagship programme where we first introduce the four colour energies).  

The Insights Discovery personal profile uncovers which colour energies you prefer to use and how your behavioural preferences come across to those around you.

Shane’s initial reaction to her profile was defensive: it revealed that, with her strong preference for Fiery Red energy, there were times when Shane came across to others as harsh, overbearing and cold, and with high expectations.

Obviously not how she was intending to show up to her team, and far from how she thought she was showing up.


The most revelatory moment was when I did an exercise with my team, and we all put a post-it on each other’s back and indicated what colour we thought people led with. Most people gave me Fiery Red, and I couldn’t believe they knew this about me, and I didn’t. These people work with me every day and they know me. Having this perspective, I took it more seriously and, once I looked at it with more open-mindedness, I could see the whole picture about how I was showing up.

Shane’s experience is not unique, and it was because she had the courage to embrace the reality of how her behaviour was impacting her environment that she was able to change herself and her environment for the better.  


Discover your colour energy preferences

Take a look at the colour energy wheel and the bullet points below. Which colour energies do you relate to most strongly? 

Leaders for a preference
Cool Blue energy:

  • May be thoughtful and deliberate
  • Often thinks things through before committing to action
  • May value logical arguments and principles when planning
  • Often like information and input to be accurate
  • Process information in a systematic and literal way
  • May maintain a detached and objective standpoint
  • Will give people time to think things through before coming to a conclusion
  • Can indicate precisely the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of an action plan

Leaders for a preference
Fiery Red energy:

  • Are often direct and straightforward
  • Generally take a pragmatic approach to decision-making
  • May be quick to state the pros and cons of a certain course of action
  • Frequently have strong determination that influences those with whom they interact
  • Will focus on actions and deliverables
  • Often act swiftly and decisively
  • Frequently seek an outcome that is specific and tangible

Leaders for a preference
Earth Green energy:

  • Are often helpful, supportive and operate with integrity
  • May appeal to the personal values of others
  • Often try to create the ideal working environment
  • Frequently start from personal and subjective criteria
  • Prefer to secure mutual consensus before moving forward
  • May ensure all individual perspectives are heard and considered in decision-making

Leaders for a preference
Sunshine Yellow energy:

  • Are often engaging, positive, and enthusiastic
  • Will make an effort to involve others
  • Frequently approach others in a persuasive and inviting manner
  • Often act as a catalyst for growth and change
  • May enjoy lively group discussion
  • Generally switch easily between today’s reality and tomorrow’s possibilities
  • Often encourage participation and seek the company of others in social situations


Accepting how others may perceive you in the workplace will help you consider how others are showing up too, so you can better adapt your responses. 


Viewing your workplace colleagues through the lens of the colour energies 

The Issues Table




We can’t always change the issues that arise in the office, but we can certainly reduce the amount of chaos, stress and miscommunication that can occur between people.  

This level of awareness, and the mutual understanding it generates, is what fuels breakthroughs when you’re fighting those fires. This is why self-awareness is the most important factor in becoming a visionary leader.


Exercise: Which colour energy best reflects how you act on a good day and on a bad day?  


  1. Looking at the Insights Discovery colour energy wheel again, which primary and secondary behaviours do you feel best describe how you are on a good day and on a bad day? 
  2. Now show the diagram to your colleagues. Ask them which primary and secondary behaviours they feel best describe you on a good day and on a bad day. 

Good day

Good Day

Bad day

Bad Day


How to integrate your self-awareness into a leadership model

Becoming a visionary leader means bringing the four manifestations of leadership into balance. Now that you’re aware of your colour energies, let’s look at how these colour energies interact with different leadership styles.  

Insights Wheel



Insights four leadership manifestations

The Insights Leadership model builds on the Insights Discovery four-colour model.

When the different preferences (colour energies) are brought to leadership, they manifest in a variety of ways. Understanding how our unique combination of colour energies influences how we lead provides a deeper understanding of our style and approach.


The four leadership manifestations are:

Results Leadership:

Results leadership is about making decisions based on what needs to get done, when and how, and focusing on deliverables. (Those who lead with a combination of Fiery Red and Cool Blue energies may find themselves gravitating towards this manifestation, although all leaders are capable of delivering results in their own way.)

Examples of this leadership manifestation:

  • Task-oriented with the ability to efficiently set priorities and get the job done
  • Approaching challenges objectively and rationally

Visionary Leadership:

Visionary leadership relies on bringing people along on the journey by painting a compelling picture of the future that they can buy into. (Those who lead with a combination of Fiery Red and Sunshine Yellow energies may find themselves gravitating towards this leadership manifestation, although all colours can deliver vision in their own way.)

Examples of this leadership manifestation:

  • Focusing on the environment and envisaging creative ways of responding
  • Seeing opportunities that others may miss

Centred Leadership:

Centred leadership is very grounded in what is right for the people and priorities affected by each decision. (Those who lead with a combination of Cool Blue and Earth Green energies may find themselves gravitating towards this leadership style, although all leaders are capable of delivering centred leadership in their own way.)

Examples of this leadership style may include:

  • Quietly reflecting on personal convictions, values and motives that underpin one's leadership approach
  • Having a strong sense of the here-and-now: alert and keen on what's going on and what needs to be done

Relationship Leadership:

Relationship leadership is very people-focused and prioritises creating supportive and harmonious team environments. (Those who lead with a combination of Sunshine Yellow and Earth Green energies may find themselves gravitating towards this leadership style, although all leaders are capable of delivering relationship leadership in their own way.)

Examples of this leadership manifestation may include:

  • Putting a strong emphasis on relationships that revolve around mutual respect and collaboration
  • Ensuring team interactions are considerate and that all voices are heard and contributions valued



How to apply this awareness and change how you lead in your daily work life

We said earlier that everyone has a unique mix of all four colour energies, and the same is true for all four leadership manifestations.

Although knowing how we prefer to react and show up are useful tools in themselves, the real value, from a day-to-day leadership perspective, is knowing how to balance opposite styles when leading. In this way, we become skilled at switching between them as the situation warrants. 


Discover your development opportunities and expand your repertoire

This simple exercise will reveal to which extent you rely on one leadership manifestation over another and focus your development in areas you need to work on.  

1.    In the first row, write the percentage of time you spend in each area. All four areas should add up to 100.
2.    In the second row, write the percentage of time you’d like to spend in each area. All four areas should add up to 100.  
3.    Identify the manifestation that has the largest growth opportunity – this is your mission-critical priority.  


Elevate leadership blog visual_V2-03

The leadership manifestation with the largest gap is your mission-critical development priority. 

The leadership manifestation with the second largest gap is your next priority.

Looking at your own chart, which leadership styles do you need to develop or tone down?  

We’ve collected a of series stretch tasks you can practise for all four leadership manifestations. Even integrating one or two targeted stretch tasks into your daily life can make a marked difference in how you lead, how you’re perceived, and how you perceive others...

Activities to build Results Leadership

  • Make a point of prioritising work daily.
  • Set measurable goals and objectives with milestone dates attached and review them regularly.
  • Be aware of your own preferences and strengths to identify where you may need to build skills to achieve the required results.
  • Initiate daily stand-up meetings to review project progress and identify bottlenecks.
  • Identify each team member’s strengths and opportunities to demonstrate success. Make a point to formally and informally recognise your team’s hard work and achievements.

Activities to build Visionary Leadership

  • Schedule uninterruptable time in your calendar to think creatively, read industry papers, or even book a call with your mentor. The point is that it must be unstructured so your mind can connect dots and see the big picture.
  • Encourage others to contribute to the vision. Create a safe environment where all ideas are welcome. Before making decisions, seek insight from different teams and functions within your team.
  • Communicate/illustrate what success will look like.
  • Consider how to motivate others to follow your vision. How do their preferences shape their motivation? Share your vision, even before it’s complete, to engage others in the journey; and communicate how they can be involved.

Activities to build Relationship Leadership

  • Provide sincere and personalised feedback to team members. Frame your feedback positively, and make sure it's authentic and well-considered.
  • Initiate a conversation with team members about what they really care about in their role – you are bound to discover values you have in common. Ask them for tangible ways you can support them in being true to those shared values.
  • No matter how busy you or they are, make time for team-building moments. They don’t have to be full-day outings, but moments to connect and understand each other better, enabling you to work more effectively together.

Activities to build Centred Leadership

  •  Learn from past experiences. Write down situations at work that caused upset or anger in someone. Run through the interaction and emotions from the other person's perspective.
  • Identify where the person probably had good intent. Now list ways you may have acted differently if you had assumed good intent from the start.
  • Allow each member of your team to structure one-on-one meetings in a way that feels best for them. At each meeting, write down positive things you learned about this person, thank them, and offer to wrestle with new ideas for doing things.
  • When you find yourself resisting old patterns, pause and reflect. Over time, you will recognize patterns and anticipate these reactions.


This post is an excerpt from the Five Steps to Transform Into a Visionary Leaders Workbook, available as part of the Insights Leadership Info Pack.