For the past 20 years I have worked with leaders and organisations to help create positive change in both.

We always start with a simple question: ‘What is the talk you are trying to walk as a leader?’

In other words, what is most important to role model both as a human being and as a leader? What are your values, your code, the principles you want to lead by?

A term we like to use in our work is the ‘self-examined mind.’

This is the stage of development in which a person consciously authors his or her values and daily behaviour, instead of being trapped in the unconscious reactivity of ‘image management.’

Image management refers to the time and energy we waste in organisations on blame, denial deflection, defence, gossiping, politics, saving face, masking our weaknesses and other fear-based strategies to make ourselves feel safe or look good.

In many organisations, image management can be like a second job for most people.

One research study we performed involving more than 5,000 people from various global organisations indicated that image management may suck up about 40 per cent of people’s time and energy on average.

This is a staggering waste of time and energy, costing billions of dollars.

More critically, image management creates values breaches, and a workplace culture wherein people fail to speak up or admit mistakes, judge or blame others, and avoid addressing inefficiencies - all to ensure their image is protected.

This arrests growth, damages leadership credibility, shuts down innovation and impacts mental health, while keeping relationships superficial.

So, with this in mind, what are the common ‘red flags’ of a leader that’s stuck in image management and protecting their ego?

Here are the top five:

  1. They’re not self-aware: this is by far the biggest red flag, as a lack of self-awareness leads to being stuck in self-sabotaging patterns, like denial and blame.

  2. They waste time protecting their own ego and managing their own image, instead of acting authentically and adding genuine value to their team.

  3. They micromanage, and struggle with letting their employees feel empowered to take on greater responsibility. Perhaps they love the action of being hands on in the day-to-day activities of the business, or maybe they have a deep-seated fear of giving up control because they believe only they know the best way to execute a task or project.

  4. They don’t know how to give honest, constructive feedback, leading to greater problems and miscommunications down the track. Many leaders struggle with giving honest feedback, as they’re afraid of conflict and want to be perceived as “nice.” However, as a leader if you don’t give honest feedback then your employees can never learn and grow from their mistakes. Eventually, these employees will leave the company, either because they’re struggling to meet the demands of their role, or they feel like they’re not learning anything new and progressing in their careers.

  5. They’re short tempered or avoidant – a leader or manager who hasn’t yet learnt to self-regulate their emotions will find themselves reacting to situations from the “fast brain” (e.g. the part of your brains that controls the fight or flight response) rather than reacting from their “slow brain” (the part of your brain that controls logical thought and reasoning).

The opposite of a leader that’s pre-occupied by image management is someone who is self-aware and mindful of the impact their behaviour has on others.

The way that people can cultivate greater self-awareness in their lives is through ‘vertical growth’, meaning developing the ability to change how you perceive and value your inner and outer world (mindset), then building the self-regulating awareness to support the development of new behaviours in a sustainable way aligned with your core values.

In leadership development, simply acquiring more skills (known as horizontal growth) is just not enough.

Leaders need to grow vertically to reach their full potential as a leader.

What does ‘vertical growth’ look like in practice?

A self-aware person can view their thoughts, emotions, conditioned patterns, and reactions objectively.

Through the development of self-awareness, we become present, compassionate, honest, curious, committed and transformed.

The greater our self-awareness, the greater our capacity to align our behaviour with our noblest intentions and values.

Leaders who embrace the self-awareness journey become a beacon of growth and psychological safety for those around them.

Instead of denying their mistakes, they are honest with themselves and others.

They are interested, even excited by seeing behaviours in themselves that are not working, and they are courageous enough to admit it.

Instead of justifying, ignoring, and denying actions that hold them back from deeper insight and wiser choices, they want to understand where, how and why they’re falling short on their values and aspirations.

And by doing so, they give others they safety and permission to do the same.

If we don’t treat people with dignity and respect, we disqualify ourselves from being exceptionally good leaders.

We also destroy any possibility of psychological safety, which is a prerequisite for high-performing, healthy teams with a growth mindset.