When Dr. Robin Hinkle began to teach a graduate business class in organizational leadership at Spalding University five years ago, she decided to change the focus of the course to self-awareness. Why? Hinkle believes that cultivating greater self-awareness can be critical to leadership development. Your perception of yourself vs. how others perceive you could be holding you back professionally.

“It’s about the question of do I understand my identity, said Hinkle, who is the Director of the Master of Science in Business Communication (MSBC) program. “Do I know my strengths and weaknesses? Do I have an awareness how others might view me as a leader?”

Hinkle’s course teaches self-awareness techniques and assessments her students can use, such as 360 reviews. These involve getting assessments from people in your workplace whom you trust to give you honest feedback – both supervisors and subordinates. “You have to have feedback from others to determine if their opinions of you align with the way you think you’re coming across.”

Hinkle said employers today are paying more attention to soft skills and emotional intelligence than ever before. “A big part of emotional intelligence is being able to solicit feedback instead of running from it or making excuses or putting up defense mechanisms,” she said. “When you peel that away, you get down to ‘How much of this can I own? How do I see this feedback as a gift and use it to be my best self?”

Kyle Spalding, 36, a native of Loretto, Kentucky and recent MSBC graduate, said the organizational leadership class was all about self-discovery. “What traits are needed to effectively lead and influence people? I wanted to know what my strengths and areas of opportunity were,” he said.

One thing Spalding said he learned from the class was not to be an authoritative leader but rather a servant leader – one who influences and leads by finding where the need is and how to help someone else succeed.

Three months ago, Spalding used his honed leadership skills to secure a new position as a communications consultant at a change management firm in Naples, Florida, a big opportunity he attributes to classes like organizational leadership.

As Director of the MSBC program, Hinkle said she views her role as helping students stay on top of the latest best practices and demands in the workforce. According to a 2014 survey by Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), employers cited communication as the number one skill they wished their new business hires knew. “It’s just so foundational,” said Hinkle. “The self-awareness piece is critical to communicating on so many different levels; one-on-one to within a team and across disciplines,” she said. “We felt like it was our mandate to help our students navigate that and meet that need that employers are saying they have.”

Vahid Mockon

That focus on business communication skills was what drew Vahid Mockon, 43, to pursue his MSBC from Spalding University, which he completed in 2016. A campus recruiter and retention specialist at Centerstone, a Louisville-based behavioral health agency, Mockon said the organizational leadership course gave him the opportunity to translate classwork to workplace.

“This aspect of being more self-aware as a leader helped me, particularly after I finished the program,” said Mockon, a native of the Philippines and experienced manager who has worked in four different countries. “I used materials we had in Dr. Hinkle’s class to put together a questionnaire and help a business unit here at Centerstone. It helped those folks be more reflective. For example, someone may think all along they are a team player, but their co-workers don’t think so,” he said.

Mockon said the result of the questionnaire was that the business team was more engaged. “Now they knew and could put their finger on it. ‘Ok, this is what I thought I was – either yes confirmation – or this is something I need to work on.’ It makes them better people and makes for a better team,” he said.

There were even a few surprises for Mockon himself. “It was brought to my attention that I could consult more with others before taking action,” he said. “People saw me as a go-getter but I realized I wasn’t giving myself the opportunity to gather feedback or listen to other voices first. It was a real value for me because, in the end, the outcome is not just coming from my own perspective but from a more collaborative approach.”

Hinkle said the lessons learned from self-assessment can be significant. “Just being aware goes a long way,” she said. “Some people are pretty surprised at what they learn.” She emphasized that looking honestly at yourself doesn’t mean you’re being fake or disingenuous. “You can look in the mirror and be you but also happy with how other people see you,” said Hinkle.  It’s a soft skill to do this, but at the same time one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.”