Chapter 8 – Self-Reflection: Identifying the Leader in You

Leaders are made. Leaders are NOT born. While some personal traits (such as extroversion, high native intelligence, or previous experience) are recognized in our culture as components of “good leadership,” the mere possession of these traits will not ensure that an individual will make an effective leader.

Leaders are individuals who have practiced and honed their communication skills.

What else is fundamental to leader development?

  1. Leadership can be learned, and
  2. Leadership development can help you both professionally and personally

In this chapter, we will focus on these two fundamental truths by focusing on communication, authenticity, and reflection.

Leadership development is often presented as something that is external to us, something that we need direction from outside sources. While books (like this one), trainings, podcasts, etc., are certainly helpful in giving insight and direction on leadership, it is also important not to overlook how your own experiences, skills, and personality position you to be a successful leader.


Leadership Pathways

In a book entitled, Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, Kevin Cashman makes a solid argument for viewing your personal experiences as leadership strengths. Cashman (2017) gives us seven pathways or steps for helping us to remain committed to growing as a leader.

  1. Pathway 1: Personal Mastery – This means taking the time to learn more about yourself. What is important to you? How do you communicate with others? What are your fears? The more self-awareness we have, the easier it is to select safe, responsible, and respectful reactions when engaging with others and stressful situations.
  2. Pathway 2: Purpose Mastery – How do you make a difference? What is it that you do differently than your peers? This pathway helps you connect your values from pathway 1 with your natural strengths and abilities.
  3. Pathway 3: Interpersonal Mastery – Focus on your individual relationship and communication skills, strengths, and areas for improvement. A communication focus allows us to see the impact of our verbal and non-verbal choices in tangible ways. Did we overreact when our teammate told us there were going to miss a deadline? Should we have taken a moment to collect our thoughts, hear why they are running behind, and consider the project and relationship before responding? Probably. One way to learn more about your interpersonal tendencies is to ask a close friend or a relative to chat with you about your strengths and ask what aspects of communication and relationship building and maintenance you could work on.
  4. Pathway 4: Change Mastery – The sooner you can make friends with flexibility and adaptability, the easier your life will be. Also, you give your teammates and followers a gift when you role model flexibility.
  5. Pathway 5: Resilience Mastery – This is among the authors’ favorite pathways, because Cashman (2017) points out that while resilience can emerge from navigating adversity, we can also build it through engaging in activities we enjoy. Yes, we actually build a reservoir to draw from by doing activities that make us feel good. Whether you fill up by spending time with friends and family members or through running or curling up with a good book – these activities are not luxuries, but rather are essential actions to help bolster your reservoir of resilience.
  6. Pathway 6: Being Mastery – This is an extension from pathway 5 and involves scheduling downtime for quiet and reflection. Being mastery can also include journaling, meditation, or listening to music. The goal of this pathway is to create space for reflection so that you may check-in to consider what is going well and what could be improved.
  7. Pathway 7: Action Mastery – This pathway encompasses the previous 6. Action mastery describes leading as your whole, authentic self. When we lead from this authentic space, we are positioned to help coach others to do so as well.

Cashman’s pathways give us a roadmap for leading. Certainly, that makes the process of leader development sound simpler and more linear than it really is, but once we have some direction it makes it easier to be mindful that we can continue to make forward strides. Reviewing these pathways helps to illustrate the role that communication both internal (our inner monologue) and external impact the way that we lead. Now we can return to our two fundamental truths of leader development.


Leadership Can Be Learned

A communicative view of leadership means that it is like any other communication-based skill…it can be learned, it can be improved, it can be developed throughout the course of your career.

Let’s look at two primary functions of leaders:

  1. Leaders Inspire. Leaders connect with others via communication. This can be in the form of face-to-face conversations that occur in meetings or while passing in the hallway. It can also include virtual meetings, emails, and memos among other channels (i.e., phone calls, text messages, etc.). Leaders develop relationship and build trust with team members. Why is this important? Everyone responds differently to feedback. Some prefer a tough love, direct approach whereas others benefit being shown clear examples to avoid feeling criticized. Inspiring others to do their best takes adept, tailored communication.


  1. Leaders Collaborate. Successful leaders connect with their team to accomplish work tasks. This might look a little different workgroup to workgroup and some where lead from the front by providing specific guidance, deadlines, and check-ins. Other leaders may create space for their team to lead a project and weigh in periodically to ensure the team is on track. Regardless of the approach, the leader needs to be able to align team members to meet work goals.

What we see across these two examples of primary functions of a leadership role is that communication is king. What does that mean? Without a solid focus on communication and a foundation of communication skills, a leader’s successes are likely to be short lived. Some of the other common communicative functions leaders enact include acting as a negotiator, influencer, counselor, coach, mediator, visionary, cheerleader, change agent, and role model.


8.1 Leadership in Action: The Traits Approach

When one of the authors introduces traits approach to her class, she projects a photo of Dwayne Johnson—also known as The Rock—and a photo of Mother Teresa.

Most students look both amused and confused. Why? These are two well known individuals, though they are wildly different and therefore, not typically considered together.

So why does one of the authors use these images?

According to trait theory, leaders are “born” with certain qualities or characteristics that make them successful leaders. This approach is linked to the Great Man Theory of leadership largely contributed to Thomas Carlyle. This antiquated theory focused on leaders’ traits to explain why some emerged as leaders. Carlyle, a historian, looked at previous leaders. What did he find? Unsurprisingly, he found that they were men, typically who were from more affluent families, and tended to be tall and broad. What other similarities do we see here? The fact that these great leaders all tended to be war heroes, completely excluding women and naturally favoring those who were appointed to officer roles. Moreover, those who tend to shine in battle are those who are physically stronger.

Thus, if we return to the example of Dwayne Johnson and Mother Teresa, the Great Man Theory would automatically position The Rock as a stronger leader than Mother Teresa because of his physical traits. This is not to say that Dwayne Johnson isn’t a leader, but rather to illustrate that individuals should not be assessed or evaluated on their leadership ability simply owing to their traits, particularly their physical traits.

More contemporary traits-based research has found that certain characteristics tend to help leaders excel (Yukl, 2013). Some of these qualities include:

  • Personal integrity
  • High energy levels
  • Self-confidence
  • Responsible
  • Tolerance for stress
  • Emotional maturity

What is most important to remember, however, is that leadership is a communication skill. Just like public speaking, with intention, reflection, and practice we can sharpen our leadership communication skills.


Leadership Development Enhances You Personally and Professionally

Oftentimes when we hear the word “leader” we think of someone in a formal position. While that is certainly true, it is important to recognize that we are leading when we are influencing others, when we are helping to organize or facilitate, when we are role modeling positive behavior. Developing as a leader also occurs when you face adversity.  Some instances where you may find yourself having to draw from your stocks of resilience include:

  • taking a challenging college course,
  • applying and interviewing for internships,
  • navigating interpersonal relationships, including the conclusion of romantic relationships,
  • making a tentative plan for life after college,
  • seeking feedback or assistance for questions, concerns, or aliments on your own for the first time

It is helpful to consider leadership development as a pursuit that is lifelong and one that occurs inside and outside of organizational settings. In fact, one of the textbook authors felt she learned a great deal about leading and role modeling after becoming a parent. Just as life events can present opportunities to learn more about our leadership strengths and abilities, so can common organizational passages. Some workplace occurrences that may allow you to face adversity include:

  • joining a new organization,
  • coping with a challenging manager,
  • competitive peers,
  • failure of a project,
  • work/life balance challenges,
  • loss of ambition

In situations such as these, we have options. You can choose to fail backward or fail forward.

Failing backwards happens when we don’t take responsibility for our actions, or we try to shift the blame and get stuck in the failure rather than taking the time to learn from our actions.

Failing forwards is what we should strive for. Failing forward means that we own our mistake and plan for how to succeed in the future.


8.2 Identifying Your Strongest Traits

Communication scholars Leah Omilion-Hodges and Jennifer Ptacek included an adaption of a personality traits quiz in their most recent leadership book (Omilion-Hodges & Ptacek, 2021).  The quiz stems from a five-factor model of personality, widely known as the Big Five. The Big Five use five factors to describe an individual’s personality.

The five factors include:

  1. Agreeableness
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Neuroticism
  4. Extraversion
  5. Openness to experience

Each of these factors are described on a continuum or spectrum, ranging from low to high.

As Omilion-Hodges and Ptacek point out (2021) someone who scores high on neuroticism may be more easily irritated and more anxious whereas those who rank low on the spectrum are likely calmer and more emotionally stable.

Below is a sample survey you may take that will give you some insight on your strongest traits. Being aware of your strongest traits can allow you to sharpen them further and finetune them.

Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree
I am always willing to listen to new ideas 1 2 3 4 5
I like to think outside the box 1 2 3 4 5
I have a curious mindset 1 2 3 4 5
I appreciate new experiences 1 2 3 4 5
I am imaginative 1 2 3 4 5
I consider myself very responsible 1 2 3 4 5
I am efficient in getting work done 1 2 3 4 5
I consider myself to be organized 1 2 3 4 5
I am practical in most situations 1 2 3 4 5
I am always on time 1 2 3 4 5
I enjoy meeting new people 1 2 3 4 5
I am talkative when out with friends 1 2 3 4 5
I like to go on new adventures 1 2 3 4 5
I have high energy 1 2 3 4 5
I would not consider myself to be shy 1 2 3 4 5
I am always willing to help people out 1 2 3 4 5
I get along with pretty much everyone 1 2 3 4 5
I am trusting of others 1 2 3 4 5
I am generous to others 1 2 3 4 5
I don’t argue much with other people 1 2 3 4 5
I tend to worry about a lot of things 1 2 3 4 5
I often feel anxious 1 2 3 4 5
I am quick to get angry 1 2 3 4 5
Things upset me easily 1 2 3 4 5
People tend to irritate me often 1 2 3 4 5
Openness Score: __________        
Conscientiousness Score: __________        
Extraversion Score: __________        
Agreeableness Score: __________        
Neuroticism Score: __________        

For the first four traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness), your highest score suggests your strongest personality trait that can influence your leadership success. You could consider any score over 20 to be strong in that trait. However, high levels of neuroticism have been negatively associated with effective leadership, so scores below 10 in that category could be considered favorable (Goldberg, 1992; Lochlin et al., 1998).


Capitalizing on Your Leadership Experiences

One thing we hear from our students frequently is that they “have no leadership experience.” And this simply isn’t true. Sure, they may not have had the opportunity yet to hold a formal managerial or director position, but they have certainly navigated situations that required someone to serve as the leader formally or informally. This can be volunteering to organize class groupwork or it can be leading your student organization. Below we review common positions that students work in to point out how aspects of that role are part and parcel with leadership.

  • Waiting Tables: Many students find themselves waiting tables or performing a similar function in restaurants during their college career. While many students are quick to brush this experience aside as unrelated to their future career, waiting tables presents the opportunity to hone important transferable skills. This job requires individuals to be audience-centered, maintain focus in a high-stress, fast-paced environment, and manage multiple and competing demands simultaneously. Thoughtful servers will communicate differently with each table. They may use different language with families than with their peers or with a table of sports fans. Additionally, especially during lunch and dinner rushes, holidays, or other special occasions such as graduation and Valentine’s Day, wait staff demonstrate calm under pressure. This also includes being mindful of various needs of each table whether it is an allergy, a time limitation, or a challenging guest such as hungry small children. Waiting tables likely also includes elements of public relations, relationship management, and conflict resolution. Check out the link to the article from a CEO that says waiting tables helped prepare him to lead an organization in the Leadership Communication in the Media section below.


  • Working in Retail: Working in retail in another job that many college students take on. Though many students don’t immediately see the link between retail and transferrable leadership skills, there are many. Working in retail epitomizes customer-focus and highlights the importance of communication. In this work setting, associates must be knowledgeable about products and able to articulate sometimes complex or technical information to customers such as in the case of working in electronics or appliances. Employees in retail also demonstrate the ability to multitask in terms of restocking or setting up a display while also fielding requests from customers and even from store leaders. Retail workers are often pulled away from their primary task, such as stocking a new display, to come assist at the register or help process a return. This requires the ability to work in non-linear ways and instead prioritize the most pressing need. Retail employees are often asked for their recommendations, to give feedback on items, and to listen to frustrated or stressed customers. This allows individuals the opportunity to sharpen their interpersonal skills especially in terms of tailoring their communication to meet each individual customer where they are.


  • Nannying/Babysitting: A hallmark of leading well is responsibility. Taking care of babies and children requires the utmost care. Students who engage in this role can speak to their ability to lead in ways that are respectful, responsible, and safe. This might sound familiar because these characteristics are those we suggested every leader demonstrate. Students who work with children can talk about the way in which they engage with them, treating them with dignity and respect. Additionally, parents often trust the nanny/babysitter with assets like money and the family car. They can also speak to the safeguards they instill to keep their environments safe emotionally and physically.


Chapter Resources

Critical Incidents in Leadership – Mini Case Study: Traits vs Communicative Lens

You have a friend who is really pessimistic about leadership. They feel like since they have not yet held a leadership position—never a team captain or president of a student organization—that they are not fit to lead in the future. They’re feeling pretty down about their future employment and earning prospects because of it. Most recently, they have begun to say “leaders are born” and “I wasn’t born a leader.” Taking a leadership communication perspective and considering what you now know about leader development, what two pieces of advice would you give your friend in terms of their ability to lead (and lead well) in the future?


Leadership Communication in the Media

  1. High 5 Test – Discover Your Strengths: While assessments such as CliftonStrengths (formally called StrengthsFinder) are widely used and recognized tests for learning more about your strengths, they also come with a price tag. The High 5 Test is free, but more importantly it is very highly regarded. In fact, many large corporations such as Dell, Adidas, and Disney utilize the assessment with their employees. Spend a few minutes to garner more insight into your interpersonal strengths.


  1. Leader Reflection Questions. The blog has a list of thoughtful leadership questions. Why? As the blog suggests, effective leadership questions are at the heart of great leadership. These questions will help you on an interview but will also help you to grow as a leader. We suggest you check out the self-leadership questions in order to learn a bit more about how you feel about a particular project, person, or situation. 20 Effective Leadership Questions: the Power to Motivate and Inspire (


  1. Podcast Episode on Leader Development: Who I am, Who I was, and Who I might become. On her podcast, The Communicative Leader, Dr. Omilion-Hodges created an episode dedicated to leader development. In the episode, she stresses that leader are made (not born) and that they are simply people who learn to communicate well. Listen here:


  1. How Waiting Tables Prepared Me to Be a CEO. This article published on is from Jason Wesbecher a CEO of a star-up. In the article, Wesbecher describes how his time waiting tables during college left him with skills that he still uses today as the Chief Executive Officer.




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Leadership Communication: Principles and Practice Copyright © 2024 by Leah Omilion-Hodges and Annette Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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