Know Thyself.
– Inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The most important work leaders can do is anything that increases our awareness of our brilliance as well as our shadows. This awareness increases self-mastery and leadership capacity. Self-aware leaders have the capacity and courage to give real answers to these important questions:

“How are you feeling? Why are you doing this? What are you thinking?”

When we replay our response to any situation, we can often see that we were driven by deeper instinctual impulses than we realized or were willing to admit in the moment. When we are disconnected from our deeper motivations, we radiate an incongruence between what we say and what’s going on inside us. Unless we know ourselves, we are stuck with an inability to rise above our habitual, limited thinking and action.

We come into the world with core, survival-based, instinctual, deeply unconscious drivers of thoughts and behavior. Because these drivers are the hardest to identify and regulate, they get us into the most trouble. Self-awareness does not make these internal triggers go away, but it does help us regulate them.

An Essential Tool in Your Tool Box

According to Enneagram experts, humans are motivated by three basic instincts: the instinct to preserve our life, to connect, and to create and operate within a social structure. Remove any one of these instincts and humans would not have made it very far.

The Enneagram provides a map that helps identify which of the three instincts is a primary driver for you and how the instinct influences your thoughts, feelings, and behavior.* If you want to be more self-aware, understand the role of your primary instinct. Or to get unstuck, put just a bit more effort toward strengthening your weakest instinct and watch what happens.


Here are descriptions of the three instincts:

Self-preservation instinct – The instinct to have adequate food, shelter, and rest; informs our self-care and our connection to our bodies and the earth.

One-to-one instinct – The instinct to connect with another, sometimes in an intense or intimate way; drives our need to be seen as an individual.

Social instinct – The instinct to belong and to know our place in a community and in the world., a great overall resource for further exploration, offers a low-cost assessment of your subtype, or what they call your “instinctual variant.”

Make Better Choices

Your primary instinct channels your energy and attention. However, an instinct can get overused. Once you know the pros and cons of your primary instinct, you can increase your range of thinking, feeling, or acting.

Your self-preservation instinct helps set and enforce boundaries to keep you safe, and it will motivate you to produce, achieve, and garner resources. Overused, this instinct can result in self-centeredness, over-working/eating/playing, and disconnection from the big picture.

Your one-to-one instinct helps you forge and maintain relationships, be vulnerable, and create emotional connections with others. Overused, this instinct will result in co-dependence, an insatiable need to be seen and affirmed, or an approach that comes on a bit too strong.

Your social instinct helps you understand team and organizational systems and dynamics, and helps you find or create your place in such systems. Overused, you will play politics and manipulate systems to your advantage, or conform too rigidly to social or corporate norms.

Create Better Outcomes

What’s your primary instinct? Your primary instinct informs most everything you do, think, and feel; how you navigate relationships, what your house and office look like, and how you communicate. How does your primary instinct trip you up? Identify just one current leadership or relationship challenge you are facing and notice how your primary instinct is influencing the way you are approaching it.

If you take a careful (if sometimes painful) look at why you think/feel/say/act the way you do, you will tap into your grounded wisdom instead of your impulsive reactivity. It’s self-inquiry that allows you to choose freely so you can move from mere surviving to really thriving.

* The Enneagram system tells us that in addition to operating out of one of nine “Types” or character structures, we each fall into one of twenty-seven “Subtypes” that are shaped by the three primary instincts.