Assessment : Self Mastery

Charles founded Adaptive Leadership in 1993 after retiring from a full civilian career with the US Army.

During his government service he served as Director of the Army's Northeast US Regional Training Center responsible for developing Federal executives in an eleven state region. He was Chairman of the Management Development Department at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, responsible for the design and conduct of in-house supervisor and manager development courses. Afterwards he served as Chief of the Organizational Consulting Office of the US Army Communications - Electronics Command.

During his career with the US Army developing managers and conducting internal organization development (OD) consulting, he introduced innovative programs in quality circles, productivity management, corporate values, participate management, leadership development, and creativity enhancement.

He has been teaching part-time in MBA programs for various universities for over fifteen years.

Charles Albano has recently published a book of business poetry, Skyline Drive: A Poetic Journey Through Business Life, 2001. The book is available electronically or in print through  E-mail Dr Charles Albano at

"No man is fit to command another that cannot command himself."  William Penn 1644 - 1718.

"This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, throu canst not then be false to any man."  William Shakespeare 1564 - 1616.


Leadership has been described as an art form, a performing art, a science, a profession, a position, and a function of a larger management role. Whatever your point of view on this, you are likely to agree that leadership is a very demanding human process. It is a process that involves interpersonal, group and organizational skills, along with an understanding of the organization and its environment.

However, there is one skill which is central to leadership in any form - self-mastery. The literature on this topic is voluminous, spanning as it does, philosophy, psychology, and the religious and cultural traditions of many societies. It has been a preoccupation of the best minds, and references can be found that go back to ancient times. Recall the Greek inscription Know Thyself and the observations of Lao Tzu.

Self-mastery has always merited attention, but never more so than in this chaotic, transitional time - when mankind increasingly lives and works in societies where large institutions play dominant roles in shaping people's lives. The character and quality of their leadership is a high order global concern. The consequences of shallow-rooted leadership of leaders who lack self-mastery can be devastating.

Self-mastery is a daunting lifetime undertaking; it is not something to be taken casually, not something to relegated to the status of a nicety that a leader can catch up with later, or to everyone's peril, do without. The undertaking itself is strenuous and extended. It cannot be achieved overnight, if only because we change in the course of our lives. We change inside and our behaviors change outwardly - but that is where hope lies.

As I see it, Self-Mastery is the eventual result of Self-Understanding, Self-Awareness and Self-Control, in that order.

Self Understanding

Commenting on the inscription over the Oracle at Delphi, Warren Bennis offered his view on its meaning. Know Thyself, he said, means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be.

The very substance that marks a leader is his or her unique self-identity given expression through courage and persistence. Not to say we aren't all unique, but when we read the biographies of leaders in a wide range of settings, we commonly find that their lives bear testimony to their efforts to define themselves, foster their uniqueness and express that uniqueness in the world. Through their acts, they leave legacies in political, social, education and business life.

I think of introspection as a necessary form of independence from the world - always joined later in inter-dependence when leaders make their contributions. Recall the solitary contemplations of spiritual and social leaders. This may sound abstract, but leadership is an intensely personal act, and everything that goes into the chemistry of the leader is important. That includes early life experiences - growing up, attending schools, relating to parents, teachers, playmates, and the budding leader's personal coping equation - how the individual encounters the world. These are all grist in the leadership development mill. Along with them include the leader's continued effort at self-understanding.

Life is filled with experiences, and each of us learns who we are by how we manage the situations we encounter. We reflect afterward and, hopefully, learn something from each of them. It is a slow but progressive learning process. That is why self-understanding, let alone self-mastery, is always incomplete - that and the fact that the world is changing, always presenting new and sometimes unprecedented challenges.

As it has to do with leadership, I view self-understanding as being composed of many elements. This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list and not everyone may agree with all the things I include.

  • Personal history
  • Self-concept
  • Ego ideal
  • Behavioral style
  • Personal needs
  • Interpersonal needs
  • Values
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Moral character
  • Beliefs
  • Defense mechanisms
  • Vocational interests
  • Reasoning
  • Creativity
  • Self-defeating behaviors
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Biases and prejudices
  • Orientation toward authority
  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • Locus of control ( control of self versus being controlled by outside influences )
  • Basic outlook - ( optimistic, pessimistic )

That's a lot of potential learning. Enough for the long haul to be sure - a graduate degree in selfhood !


As I use the term, Self-Awareness refers to what we are conscious of experiencing in our minds and bodies, here and now. It can operate in the absence of external stimulation, ( I can be aware of a memory, for example, and have feelings about it.) But it often includes our consciousness of how other people and events are impacting us - right now. We can monitor our thoughts and feelings about events that have happened, are happening, or even may happen. While looking back and looking forward play a productive role in leadership, it is crucial for a leader to stay tuned-in to what is transpiring in the here and now.

The Here And Now

Imagine you were to ask people What are you aware of right now ? Some people could answer you by specifying what they are thinking, what they are feeling and what they saw, heard, or otherwise sensed that caused these internal states. For a variety of reasons, not everyone is highly aware of this. One person may be out of touch with his feelings, but has a good grasp of his thoughts. Another person may be able to access and label feelings with precision but has to struggle to clarify thoughts. Some may not be very attuned to such things, may not be introspective or simply may not be articulate in expressing them. Still others might be confused or overwhelmed by an event and may need more time to sort things out. By event I mean anything that can be consciously experienced. It could be a memory, a noise, an odor, a touch, or something seen, heard, or done.

Alignment Is Crucial

The ability to be in contact with our perceptions of events in the outside world and to buttress them objectively with sense data is crucial to effective functioning, especially in leadership. When a leader's actions are out of alignment with reality, dire consequences result - strategies fail, battles are lost, opportunities are missed, and relationships are damaged.


Behaviors stem from forces experienced inside ourselves as well as from our perceptions of forces acting from outside. The process is circular and interactive. Effective interaction with the world requires leaders to align their actions appropriately to what is actually required to address outside realities. To do this they need to be able to separate truth from the myths, biases, prejudices and untested assumptions they themselves may harbor. ( "Know Thyself." )

They also need to be able to sense when they are flooded by emotion, when their thinking is being contaminated, when they find themselves hard put to respond, and when they are losing sight of their objectives. In short, they need to monitor themselves - and monitor others involved - concurrent with taking their actions. It's a here and now process, live and unrehearsed. Leaders must have a sense of how their own behavior is impacting on others and vice versa, real time.

Effective leaders need to :-

  1. know themselves
  2. stay in contact with the here and now 
  3. gauge reality correctly

Elements Of Self-Awareness

Leaders should learn to monitor and stay aware of :-

  • Their emotional state
  • Their feelings and thoughts
  • Their observations and interpretations of others
  • Their responses to actions taken by others
  • Their motives, purposes, intentions, and priorities
  • The temptation towards defense mechanisms - denial, repression and avoidance

"The man who preserves his selfhood is ever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence." Ohiyesa, Native American Chief.

"We boil at different degrees." Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803 - 1882.


Self-Mastery is an ambitious struggle. It implies overcoming many obstacles. Self-Control is one of the fruits, if not the crowning achievement. By self-control, I mean the ability to retain possession of one's faculties under pressure. Leaders regularly face conditions of stress and frustration in accomplishing goals and visions through others. Mounting conflicts punctuate today's competitive environment.

There is evidence that the majority of leaders change their behavioral styles under pressure, and often not for the better. Leaders who can maintain control over how they express their emotions and the actions they take are far better equipped to influence the outcomes of situations.

Control of others is an illusion. We cannot really control other people or dictate the outcome of events - and it is doubtful that anyone is ever in complete self-control, either. Rare is the leader who, looking back over the course of a career, cannot recall occasions when self-control was suspended leaving deep-felt regrets.

Just after the American Management Association published my book entitled, Transactional Analysis On The Job some years ago, I received a letter from a reader who expressed concern about my observation that the objective part of the personality (called the Adult Ego State), should act in an executive capacity filtering a manager's words and deeds. The reader protested, thinking it would leave managers devoid of feelings, turning them into unfeeling robots. I agreed that would be deplorable, but that was not how I conceived the function. It is easy to be misunderstood on this topic, and I will elaborate on it because it has much to do with Self-Mastery.

Assertion Versus Aggression

Spontaneity has its virtues in making us fully human. We were built to laugh, be playful, joyful, cry, to experience disappointment, anger, and indignation - but how leaders express themselves and when, ought to be of concern. The appropriateness of expression in a given situation, and above all, the form it takes, are keys to self-mastery.

There are vast differences between assertive and aggressive expression in tone, wording and actions. Both may be intended to convey one's stance, pursue objectives, get things off one's chest and that is all well and good. But the benefits of spontaneity do not confer upon leaders the right to attack others on personal grounds, call names, make accusations, swear or threaten. Surely these are signs that the leader has lost self-control and is well underway to losing the ability to influence the outcome as intended.

Filtering Responses

Assertive communicators require a few moments of "computer time" to let the first wave of emotion subside and formulate response that have been filtered. That doesn't mean their feelings have been stripped away. That is neither possible nor desirable. Feelings are very important in leadership. Both the leader's feelings and those of others should be able to find expression. What it means is that an assertive response is forming in place of an otherwise spontaneous and likely, hostile response. Such communications mark a degree of Self-Mastery.

When strong feelings well-up, they pose a threat to a dialogue or a relationship. Rather than "stew in one's juices," immobilized and no longer participating, it is better to express those feelings. This informs the other person of the impact their actions are having and reduces the likelihood of a breakdown in communication.

  • I think you misunderstood me
  • I am very angry at what you just said !
  • I won't tolerate being called names
  • I am very disappointed with your position on this
  • That comment is unwarranted
  • Your actions are distancing us : they will not help achieve our goal
  • I regret we are unable to agree

In these examples the speaker expresses feelings without attacking the dignity of the other.

Through the effort at self-understanding, leaders can gain insight into their own propensities toward self-defeating behaviors - losing it under pressure, being hooked by others into purely emotional responses, over-reacting. We all know that things said and done leave lasting impressions and make the attainment of goals more difficult. Leaders can reflect on past experiences making an effort to learn from how they reacted under different circumstances and with different kinds of people.

Quiet reflection in untroubled moments is one of the most valuable ways to learn from experience. So is getting feedback from others. I recall a book aptly titled, It Takes Two To See One.

Elements of Self-Control

  • Temperament, emotional responses
  • Habits, particularly counter-productive ones
  • Self-confidence
  • Assertive communication ability
  • Stress tolerance
  • Threshold of anger
  • Reasoning ability

A noted author once likened the effort to know ourselves to taking a long journey at the end of which we may, "...come to know ourselves for the first time."

© Charles Albano, Adaptive Leadership, 1999. All Rights Reserved.

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