I See Me


It’s both a gift and a curse. The gift – the ability to assess an individual’s personality, talents, and motivation and the relative fit of those traits with the role they were in or aspired to.  My ability to decipher superior as well as developmental areas contributed to my reputation as a good judge of talent. Now on to the curse. What if I were unable to use these finely honed skills to view  myself through the same astute and microscopic filter?

My adeptness at observing others’ exceptional attributes caused me to take notice of a temporary employee that was filling in as an Administrative Assistant in my department. I noticed she was extremely bright and had some advanced skills in areas such as writing, analytics, and picking up on team dynamics. This gifted woman’s name was Holly and I wasted no time in offering her a job, which she accepted.

After hiring her, I took the time to ask Holly some questions as I wanted to better understand how her life experiences contributed to her advanced skills. Little did I know when I initiated our conversation that I would get more than I bargained for in terms of candor.  After sharing some information about her background as a director for a non profit and her history as a novelist, she went on to tell me that she almost declined my job offer.  Knowing a bit about her political orientation from comments she had made, I assumed she would go on to explain that she had mixed feelings about working for a large global corporation.  Imagine my surprise when she said that she had almost turned down the job because she was not sure she wanted to work for me!  She shared that she had seen my assistant cry on two different occasions …. because of me.

I was horrified that I had made a very loyal and hard-working assistant actually cry and even more disturbed that I did not have a clue that I had done so. How could I have such a serious lapse, one which I was not only unaware of, but which was totally out of sync with  my values?  In looking back, I can see that my high goal and task orientation combined with impatience blinded me to what was sometimes demanding and insensitive behavior on my part. I took for granted this employee’s good nature and desire to please.   

My poor leadership behavior and lack of awareness in this situation was especially abhorrent to me given I coached senior leaders on those very things.  My team and I designed executive programs to help leaders become effective in leading the people and the departments they had responsibility for. This feedback from Holly rattled me enough that in addition to talking with my assistant, I worked at improving my self awareness and behavior in times of stress.  I more actively sought out feedback knowing that I could count on Holly and a few other trusted people to give me straight and unfiltered observations about my behavior.  Feedback I sorely needed as evidenced by the fact that I had used a totally different filter to observe and judge my own approach and actions.

 In a Harvard Business Review article, Psychologist Alexandra Hayes lends some insight as to how I might have demonstrated both a blessing and a curse in this situation when she shared that there are two kinds of self-awareness: Internal self-awareness and external self-awareness, and the two are not correlated.  You can have a good grasp on your own values, passions, aspirations, behavior, and talents while not having an accurate gauge about how others view those same things.  Further, the more power one holds, the lower the external self-awareness becomes. 

In my case I had always perceived myself as self-aware, both internally and externally.  Some of the indicators that my self perception and that of others was congruent in my career life were feedback through performance reviews,  360-degree feedback, and a variety of assessments. In my personal life, feedback from friends and family provided good reality checks. Perhaps the fact that most of the feedback I received matched with my self-perception, resulted in blind spots. 

Since this experience, I came across a Zulu greeting which gave me pause for thought. The greeting is “Sawubona” and means “I see you.”  Equally noteworthy is the customary response, “Ngikhona” which means “I am here.”  I began to wonder what would happen if we were not only present with and deeply saw those whom we encounter, but also saw ourselves as others do.  

Sawubona, Ngikhona. Imagine how our interactions would change if we skipped the soulless air kisses at social events, the mindless greetings at parties, and the uninterested rhetorical question “How are you?” in our every day interactions and stopped a moment to be present with each person we encounter to see them before we speak? What if we stepped back, observed the person seeing us, and contemplated how we are being seen through their eyes.

Sawubona, Ngikhona. What if in the midst of an urgent project, I had taken but a moment to greet and truly see the beautiful soul who was my assistant? I am sure I would have treated her differently. She may not have cried.  


There is a Zulu folk saying which expands upon the concept behind the greeting Sawubona and translated means “a person is a person because of other people”. 

The CALL TO ACTION exercises below seeks to honor this concept by combining introspection about your values and aspirations with external input to foster the fine balance and vital connection between our inner sense of knowing who we are and connection to other people and our shared experiences.

Increase Internal Self-Awareness – Personal Brand

  • I like the simple definition of a brand as – a promise made a promise kept.   Take the time to consider your values and write a 1-3 sentence description which reflects your values and your aspirations about who you want to be and how you want others to experience you.
  • Read “Be Your Own Brand” by David McNally and Karl D. Speak and learn about a simple process to reflect on and craft your personal brand.
  • After completing your personal brand statements, make a simple worksheet with two columns labeled, lived my brand, eroded my brand, and observe yourself over the next month, jotting down notes in the two columns to assess the degree to which you lived your brand promise.

Increase External Self-AwarenessHuman Being Resume 

  • We are all accustomed to writing the typical human doing resume with its bullet points of job responsibilities and accomplishments. In addition to that resume,  write a human being resume. 
  • Read Tim and my human being resumes on my Significance Matters site for two examples.  
  • In my case I sent an email to 10 people who know me well asking them to send me 5 words or phrases which best describe me and their experience with me in our relationship. You can do the same by asking 8-12 people that question.  When you receive the responses, look for common themes.  It is also helpful to observe where there are differences in responses between people or categories of people. For example, people who work with you may emphasize different and even contradictory traits from those in your family or close friends.  Choose the themes which best represent who you are and who you aspire to be and craft your human being resume.
  • In Tim’s case we sought input from a few people who know his family and looked at how each of his parents contributed to how he shows up as a human being.
  • After you complete your human being resume, consider which themes you want to focus on and live more fully. 

2 thoughts on “I See Me”

  1. Hi Rae. I love this post (and not just because you are generous in your recognition of my attributes)— self awareness is just so important. Working in the field of OD for over almost two decades now, it is easy to take for granted all that I personally have learned about myself through practicing OD and working to become a better consultant. Yet I am always surprised by how many people not in this field struggle with receiving feedback, regardless of how well intended and thoughtfully given. Feedback sometimes is not easy to hear, but it is at the center of becoming a better human and understanding yourself. You have always been very gracious in receiving candid feedback from me—and you inspired me to become more self aware and see feedback as the gift it is, which has truly been transformative for me. I think it would be great if you could go back a couple of levels from this post and make a future post that would give some coaching tips on how to be open to, sit with, and reflect upon feedback in your day to day life—focusing on the basics. It is such a valuable skill—and I am forever grateful for you for being such a wonderful role model.

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