Lifelong Learning @ UNB
UNB College of Extended Learning

The Practice of Leadership - Know Thyself

Author: Glyn Jones, CRSP

Posted on Mar 11, 2021

Category: Professional Development

A group of seasoned safety practitioners, if asked, would all agree on what we could all do to further develop our leadership capacity. Professional development should not just include the hard skills development but also the soft skills development like leadership. Recognizing that developing our leadership skills may not lead directly to a bigger pay cheque or career advancement, there remains general agreement that this form of self-development is necessary. Safety practitioners would generally acknowledge that part of the solution to reducing workplace incidents and fatalities is linked to the need for greater safety leadership. You need to recognize that you can’t merely read a book or take a class to hone your leadership skills.

Deciding to become a better leader isn’t like deciding to become a member of an organization or to donate money to the food bank at Christmas. Leadership development isn’t a single act; rather it is a decision to enter into the practice of leadership. Leadership development is a life-long practice to which you decide to commit yourself, while recognizing that it is only over time and with a commitment to purpose and process that leadership skills and techniques, like yoga skills and techniques, are developed.

The first step in the leadership development process is to know yourself. Before you can lead anyone else, you have to be able to lead yourself. Self-instigation can be scary. Most of us don’t really want to face the truth about who we are (and who we are not). Polonius said it best in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he said “To thine own self be true”. I have often thought about the power of this simple quote in relation to the idea of leadership development. To become a leader, you absolutely have to know yourself. You cannot lead others or, in fact, your organization if you don’t first know yourself. Knowing yourself allows you to lead yourself. Self-leadership leads to the capacity for the leadership of others and organizational leadership.

Knowing yourself means knowing your thinking and behavioural preferences. Your genetic make-up, combined with your life’s experience during the formative years, has shaped you. Some researchers suggest that by the time you are 25 years old, you are who you are always going to be. Your default thinking and behavioural preferences are just about set in stone now. Your thinking and behavioural preferences can be an asset if understood or an enemy if not understood. A brief description about thinking and behaviour preferences is provided.

Thinking Preferences

People can’t see the way you think - that is obvious. What is going on in your head may be very mysterious to them. Thinking preferences can be characterized as structural, analytical, conceptual, and social.


Structural thinking is detailed, practical, and methodical. The structural parts of our brains like the rules and are inherently cautious of new ideas. People with a preference for structural thought are considered disciplined, organized and, to a large extent, "traditional". They like guidelines, and they learn by doing. Accountants and engineers are stereotypically structural thinkers.


Conceptual thinking is imaginative, unconventional, and visionary. The conceptual parts of our brains like change and, if not constantly stimulated, become easily bored. People with a preference for conceptual thinking are considered to be the inventors, one-of-a-kinds, and innovators. They have a certain undeniable intuition about ideas, and they learn by experimenting. Failure is not only an option for the conceptual thinkers, it is a key part of their learning experience.


Analytical thinking is rational, inquiring, and clear. The analytical parts of our brains want data to explain the world around us. People with a preference for analytical thought are considered to be logical, cogent, and objective. They live by the "scientific method" and they learn by mental analysis. Researchers and engineers are stereotypically analytical thinkers.


Social thinking involves caring about relationships, collaboration, empathy, and providing support to others. The social parts of our brains are team-oriented and socially aware. People with a preference for social thought are considered connectors, the consensus builders, and are sensitive to the feelings and ideas of others. The term "emotional intelligence" (EI) typically works well to describe social thinkers. They are intuitive about people, and they learn from others.

Most people have more than one thinking preference although they usually have a dominant thinking preference. Most people are bi-modal, tri-modal or even quad-modal in their thinking preferences, thereby making for a very complicated set of possible combinations of ways of thinking about things. When you have a preference for a particular thinking attribute, it means it plays a prominent role in your thinking processes.

Behavioural Preferences

People do see and notice our behaviours, and behavioural preferences also influence our capacity for effective communication, inter-personal relations, and our capacity to lead. Behavioural preferences can be described as measures of expressiveness, assertiveness and flexibility.


Expressiveness is your level of participation in social situations and is measured on a scale from "quiet" to "gregarious". Your degree of expressiveness indicates how much interest you show in others and in the world around you. Expressiveness is sharing what you are experiencing on the inside with the outside world. People who are at the quiet end of the spectrum for expressiveness will sit sedately in a meeting, and listen more than they talk. They are considered reserved, pensive, and calm. They avoid the spotlight, keep their feelings to themselves, and are energized by solitude. People who are at the gregarious end of the spectrum for expressiveness are just the opposite! You can’t miss them in a meeting, since they are dynamic, talkative, and lively. They are considered outgoing, animated, and spontaneous. They seek attention, and are energized by interacting with others.


Assertiveness is your level of interest in controlling tasks and results. Assertiveness is measured on a scale from "highly amiable" to "telling" or "driving". Your degree of assertiveness reflects the amount of energy you invest in expressing your thoughts, feelings and beliefs. People who are at the highly amiable end of the spectrum for assertiveness will wait patiently and politely for an elevator. They are considered deliberate, diplomatic, and friendly. On the other hand, people who are at the telling end of the spectrum for assertiveness push the elevator button repeatedly, as if that will make it come faster. They are considered competitive, forceful, and tough. They are ready for action, and prefer a fast pace.


Flexibility measures your willingness to accommodate the thoughts and actions of others and is measured on a scale from "stubborn" to "servant" (or "others before self"). Your degree of flexibility reflects how much you are willing to conform and flex with the interpersonal needs of others. People who are at the “stubborn” end of the spectrum for flexibility believe they are right and prefer to be in control of others. They are considered firm, intent, and absolute. They have strong opinions and prefer to stay on track. At the other end of the spectrum, people who are at the "servant" end of the spectrum are accommodating, receptive, easygoing, and adaptable. They don’t mind interruptions, ambiguity, or change. They see all points of view, and are accepting of other people’s ideas.

Knowing yourself is about understanding your thinking and behavioural preferences. Being effective also requires the ability to understand others’ thinking and behavioural preferences and being able to accommodate these differences. We can all make adjustments from our preferred way of thinking and we can all behave contrary to our preferred way of behaving but it is very tiring and we can only do so for a short period of time. Eventually we fatigue and revert back to our preferred ways. Adjustments to suit any situation are also easiest in calm and controlled (non-crisis) situations. When your leadership skills are needed most, in difficult times or in times of crisis, we all tend to default to our preferred ways of thinking and behaving. It is for this basic reason that for us to truly lead, we must know ourselves first.

Once you’ve stopped waiting to receive directions from others and learn to lead yourself, you’re in a position to lead others, and eventually an organization. You can be a positive influence by acknowledging the good in your teammates and refusing to act in a volatile situation until you have had time to gather the facts. Leadership isn’t something that happens - it is a skill set you cultivate and develop. Great leadership happens at all levels of life and with all kinds of people. Leadership is a daily practice and, eventually, over time and careful self-scrutiny, you become better and better at it. Recognizing the thinking and behavioural characteristics of others is one of the first steps on your leadership development journey.

Glyn is a Regional Vice-President of Alberta, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. He is partner at EHS Partnerships Ltd. in Calgary and is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience. He can be reached at