The power of self-knowledge

by Christian Kurmann

After years of collaborating in efforts to advance the practice of leadership and cultural transformation, I have become convinced that organisational change is inseparable from individual change.



But building self-understanding and then translating this into an organisational context is far easier said than done. Just getting started, in fact, is often the hardest part. I hope this article encourages leaders and executives who are ready to try, and intrigues those curious to learn more.

In all actuality, organisations don’t change – people do. We ignore this at our own peril. It is evident that the immaturity of people stems from total ignorance of our ‘self’. That is why accepting and understanding ourselves is the beginning of wisdom.


Hence to understand oneself profoundly, one needs to balance oneself inwardly with simplicity, a simplicity that comes only from self-knowledge.


Our day-to-day economic, political, environmental, and social challenges are so complex that we can only solve them if we revert to thinking simple – quite the opposite of striving to become extraordinary.  In fact, it is simplicity that helps us to see things much more directly, with clarity, because our mind is typically so crowded with an infinite knowledge of facts, that we have obfuscated our thoughts and diluted our capacity to be simple and to have clear and direct experience.

Without a doubt, we have reached a saturation point where these challenges require a brand new approach for understanding, addressing and solving complex challenges, and it’s this, in three short words:


thinking simply inwardly.


This simplicity comes from our deep inner self through our self-knowledge and understanding of ourselves.

Looking at things simply is one of the most difficult things for a leader and decision maker to do because our minds are driven to complexity; we have lost the quality of simplicity – the way we look at things without fear – which we need so that we can actually look at ourselves without exaggeration. This is why investigating into ourselves is not possible if we constantly assume things: the mind becomes too overwhelmed to release all authority, power and influence. Then the mind remains concerned with achieving a result, rather than with the investigation into self-knowledge or inward understanding. Perhaps that is why we desperately cling to authority, power and position, because we are afraid. As we demand guidance from authorities and influencers, we train our mind into the erroneous belief that the mind is incapable of standing alone, incapable of discovering simplicity and incapable of self-awareness.

But we need to feel that moment of ‘standing alone’ – completely and totally alone – to find out what is true. It is self-knowledge alone that shows us the true beginning of freedom of the mind: this is not a result, it is a process. This process of self-knowledge in one that every leader and decision maker must understand. It is a most difficult thing to be aware of oneself and of the relationships you keep with your teams, organisation, stake holders, society, family and friends, discovering how to react and recognising the responses that require extraordinary alertness of the mind.

Many organisations move quickly from setting their performance objectives to implementing a suite of change initiates. Yes, to achieve collective change over time, actions like these are necessary, but seldom are sufficient. Client experience suggests that half of all efforts to transform organisational performance fail, either because leaders or senior management don’t act as role model for change, or simply because people in the organisation defend their status quo.

It is interesting to note that if organisations can identify and address pervasive mind-sets at the outset, they are four times more likely to succeed in organisational change efforts than are organisations that overlook this stage. This means organisations must learn to look inward as well as outward, because it is crucially important to learn how to learn, and to learn how to learn new things, and to be open to new things. This is why most effective organisational change measures result if efforts are combined that look outward and that look inward, such as linking strategic and systematic intervention (outward) to genuine self-discovery, self-knowledge and self-development by leaders and decision makers (inward). This is a far better path to embracing the vision of the entire organisation and to realising its business objectives.

But what does it really means to look inward? It means to look critically and carefully at your own personal model of operating, learning how to find and maintain your inner-balance.

It is vital that those who seek to lead powerfully and effectively look at their internal experiences, because these internal experiences direct how we take actions and how we define reality. Taking accountability as a leader today includes understanding our motivations and inner drives, as these are guided by our instincts, emotions, feelings, hopes, behaviour and thoughts, all of which have a great influence on others. Learning about and describing your own self-knowledge that drives your behaviour is a necessary starting point. However, successful leaders and decision makers must develop their self-knowledge profile to a much broader and deeper level.  


This is why self-knowledge becomes so very important for leaders and decision makers: it helps us to understand ourselves much better. This means finding out what we really feel and think, how we really feel and think. Only through self-knowledge will we discover why and to what extent we are followers of ideals, assumptions and perceptions, creators of ideals merely for our unification.


Through our self-knowledge we are able to be in control of our own situation, making situations happen, rather than having a situation happen to us. By asking ourselves – who am I? – we are in a better position to understand both the outward and inward and to see how our mind becomes interface for both experiences. 

As leaders and decision makers, we cannot begin to alter the condition of the organisation without understanding ourselves. When we are discovering ourselves in relationship with another, from moment to moment, the relationship has a completely different meaning. This becomes a constant process of discovery of oneself, and from this process, we learn that self-knowledge can come only through relationship, not through isolation. We must understand that relationship is action and self-knowledge is the result of our awareness inaction.  Through self-awareness, and in the clarity brought about by self-knowledge, there comes right thinking. In cultivating right thinking thoughts and feelings unfold into the real, the timeless. This explains why right thinking is not the result of time, but of becoming intensely aware in the present of all artificial conditioning, as this conditioning prohibits clarity and understanding.

What perhaps is necessary is to learn to go beyond our narrow beliefs and formulations as leaders and decision maker to our cravings and hopes for experiencing that which is timeless and everlasting. If we begin to enquire into the process of self-knowledge – through fear, through resistance, through authority and power, or perhaps with the desire to strive and achieve a certain expected result – we do receive what we desire. But it will not be the understanding of the self and the ways of the self. This means that the process we choose to achieve is the process of thinking – and if we don’t understand ourselves as thinkers, our thinking is merely another process of escape. To understand why the mind treasures the past is to be free from the known that requires a great deal of understanding of the entire process of the accumulative mind. Perhaps as leaders we can begin to understand why the mind accumulates and treasures the past, and why it is that the mind is based on time. Once we begin to understand all that, then perhaps we comprehend how the mind can free itself from this past and accumulated knowledge and experiences that are no longer purpose-driven.


This discovery may be of something totally new, unexperienced and unimagined: and this is a state of creativity which we call reality. That is why it is so important to understand the process of self-discovery and the ways of our own thinking.

Christian Kurmann