The secret sauce: How to become a more self-aware leader 

By Greg Dardis | Guest Column

It’s going to be twice as hard to qualify for the next Democratic primary debate and that’s probably a good thing.

The first two debates of the primary were so crowded with 20 candidates that they became two-night affairs.

For the third debate, to be held next month in Houston, the Democratic National Committee tightened its criteria. Before, candidates had to reach one of two benchmarks: ranking at 1 percent (or more) in key polls or garnering 65,000 unique donors in 20 states. This time, those numbers are doubled: Candidates must hit 2 percent in polls and reach 130,000 unique donors. Meeting just one of those benchmarks no longer suffices.

As of today, it’s up to nine candidates have qualified for the debate.

I’ll be tuning in with great interest – not only to remain as informed as possible but also to satisfy my professional curiosity. My life’s work is in executive coaching, teaching the core skills that make business professionals excel in presentations and politicians shine in a debate. These include a host of verbals and non-verbals: from word choice and volume to eye contact, pacing, facial expressions and attire. Our clients study each skill.

Combined, they result in a quality that sets the best apart: leadership presence. It’s exactly what a presidential candidate aims to project when walking across that debate stage: the sense that you’re in the presence of a leader, a feeling of attraction because he is at ease and in command, a confidence that flows from the perception of cognitive and emotional intelligence. Yes, this person is special. This person deserves my vote, my money, my trust.

Leadership presence can be difficult to define but easy to pick up on: You recognize it when you see it. My team and I share an acronym for presence to help clients remember its key components: passionate, relate to your audience, expressiveness, self-awareness, energy, naturally authentic, confidence and every day. A leader demonstrates passion and energy, relating to others in an authentic way daily. One of the hardest traits to master is also among the most crucial: self-awareness.

In order to become a more effective leader, you must understand your strengths and weaknesses. You must be aware of what motivates you and your decision making.

Here are three ways to boost your self-awareness.

Know yourself. Personality tests can be a useful tool in the workplace, from strength finders to the tool we use at Dardis Communications called the Birkman Method. These tools provide a useful and insightful level of self-awareness.

Seeking feedback from colleagues and friends also can be a valuable way to boost your self-knowledge. You might be surprised by what you learn from them.

Watch yourself. Greater self-awareness results from keeping track of your decisions and evaluating them down the road. When you make a big decision, write down what you expect will happen, and then compare the results with your expectations a year later. The late management consultant Peter Drucker called this “feedback analysis.”

Warren Buffett has made a habit of it. He writes down his reasons for making an investment decision and later looks back to see what went right (or wrong). A practice like this reveals your strengths and the errors of your thinking.

Know others. Self-awareness multiplies its impact when you use it to build a team that complements you. This requires a clear-eyed understanding of others’ strengths so you can surround yourself by the ones you lack. A secure leader is not threatened by others’ talents, but rather, attracted to them.

These three exercises have a powerful effect when taken together. The entrepreneur Anthony Tjan sums them up artfully: know thyself, improve thyself and complement thyself.

Here’s to putting all three into practice and, as a result, seeing a major boost in your leadership presence.

Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Communications, based in Coralville. For more information, visit