Maxine Harris, PhD, Co-author, Lessons for Non-Profit and Start-Up Leaders

Self-awareness is seen as an essential component of having healthy relationships and of achieving success in any organization. Every year, businesses of all types and sizes spend resources and what can be as much as tens of thousands of dollars (depending on the size of the organization) to help top-level managers attain a better awareness of how they see themselves and how they are seen by others. Techniques such as staff retreats; individual coaching and supervision; and 360 evaluations in which employees receive feedback from peers, as well as from those above and below them in the organization, are all used in the quest for making leaders more self-aware.

And while individual awareness certainly helps leaders understand the impact they have on others and their own strategy for making decisions, there is another level of awareness that is essential for organizations to thrive: organizational self-awareness.

Without being too anthropomorphic, every organization needs to know “who” it is and how it is seen by others if it is to take advantages of opportunities for growth and success.  Here are three things to watch out for.

1. A failure to see how others see you. Imagine a small non-profit mental health agency that accurately sees itself as caring and responsive to the demands of its clients. The company operates inside its own little box and feels proud that it remains small and almost family-like. But outside the box, people see something else.  They do indeed see a small caring organization, but they also see an organization that does not have the skill or the will to grow.  Because the small agency never engaged the outside world, content in “who” it was, others saw it as disinterested in expansion, unwilling to take on new challenges and unable to solve difficult problems. And time passed it by.

2. A failure to see yourself objectively  Now imagine a mid-sized mental health agency that had always enjoyed an excellent reputation.  The agency saw itself as a leader in the city and a favorite of donors interested in mental health.  It boasted a very stable board of directors, many of whom had a long tenure on the board and expressed great interest and personal investment in the success of the business.  Over the years, the organization had only a few executive directors, so its mission remained unquestioned. There was continuity from one decade to the next and the organization developed a belief that its reputation was secure.

Organizational self awareness can also be validated when those outside the organization see things the same way. And this is how it was with our imaginary agency. Looking in from the outside, state and local funders as well as competing agencies all bought into the belief that the organization was well-run and profitable. When big policy decisions needed to be made at the local level, the CEO always had a seat at the table. The organization felt proud of the very positive reputation it enjoyed and that was acknowledged by others. And so it went for a long time. 

And then things in the business environment began to change.  The organization made a number of bad decisions and had to liquidate many of its assets. But no one on the inside, including members of the board of directors, felt in jeopardy, believing that the organization’s sterling reputation would persist no matter how it managed its resources.  What they failed to recognize, however, was that reputations don’t last forever and the past is often a poor predictor of the future. Organizations need to be constantly looking in the mirror and making sure that what they see is an accurate reflection of their current self, not of the self they used to be. The landscape is littered with companies that rested on their laurels as the world was moving swiftly by. It is nearly impossible to see yourself clearly when others see a blurred vision as well.

3. Be willing to embrace an evolving self-image.  Now imagine a large mental health agency that is willing to see and to present itself differently as times change.  In essence, this is the organization that is willing to re-invent itself as time passes and as the business environment shifts. Such an organization is not fickle nor is it opportunistic, rather it allows itself to evolve as it grows and as the world around it changes. A child doesn’t look the same, see itself in the same way, or be seen by others in the same way as time passes.  You don’t, nor should you look the same at age forty as you did at age twenty, or going even further back, at age five.

Remember the beginning of the Superman myth when the shocked crowd looks to the sky, “It’s a bird ....It’s a plane ….It’s Superman.”  Depending on how you look at it, where it is on the horizon, or what moment in time you happen to catch a glance, the image has transformed itself.  And so it is with many healthy companies. Their organizational persona shifts over time. And so does their organizational self-awareness.

Just as people need to be aware of who they are, so too do organizations.  When a business can take an honest look and see itself clearly, it is much more likely to make good decisions and to thrive as the world changes and new challenges arise.

About the Author

Maxine Harris, PhD is the co-author of Lessons for Non-Profit and Start-Up Leaders: Tales from a Reluctant CEO, and CEO of Community Connections, a large social service organization in Washington, DC. For more information, please visit


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