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Young African Magazine

“Know Thyself”: the Enneagram as a powerful tool for self-awareness

The enneagram is a useful starting point for understanding your own impulses and working style. Bakani Ncube (Zimbabwe & UWC, 2020) reflects on his experience engaging with this tool and how it has helped his journey as a leader.

Published 30 March 2021

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“Know thyself”, an Ancient Greek aphorism, has been quoted in literature in many different ways and in this article I use it as a call for introspection. As I begin my socially distanced second year in residence, I have re-read what is undoubtedly the best gift I received in 2020: my Enneagram report. It is slightly over a year since the Mandela Rhodes Class of 2020 had its Introductory Workshop, which is where these reports were given to us, and today I use my report as the basis for this reflection on self-awareness as a crucial component of good leadership.

The word Enneagram comes from the Greek words ‘ennea’ (nine) and ‘gram’ (what is written or drawn). There are nine different Enneagram types and each represents an individual’s worldview and their personality, core motivations, thoughts, feelings and actions. The Enneagram types are: Strict Perfectionist, Considerate Helper, Competitive Achiever, Intense Creative, Quiet Specialist, Loyal Sceptic, Enthusiastic Visionary, Active Controller, and the Adaptive Peacemaker. As an Enneagram type 5, a Quiet Specialist, I am a private individual with an active mental life, observing and exploring the world and how it works. Fives are also known to be perceptive, curious, unsentimental, self-sufficient, and inventive. The Enneagram reports we received were intended to support us in our self-discovery and development path, and to help us own and accept our strengths and weaknesses. In addition, the Enneagram aims to help individuals do the hard aspects of consciousness work. When the first COVID-19 lockdown was enforced, most of us had no choice but to sit with ourselves in isolation and really think. On the one hand, this deep reflective and self-awareness work led us to confront and tap into those parts of ourselves that we love and use as a source of strength. On the other hand, it meant going face-to-face with the uncomfortable parts that need further exploration. Basically, the Enneagram helped to make the subconscious, conscious.

As leaders, our main Enneagram types impact our leadership styles and our ability to accomplish goals. The extent to which we are able to express our leadership strengths and weaknesses is also impacted by our level of integration. Therefore, a pivotal aspect of leadership is constantly striving to attain a higher level of integration. This means having greater awareness of our ego-fixations and exploring alternative behaviours that are more aligned with our highest potential and intentions . However, we should not view integration as a once-off process. Instead, it is a subtle yet powerful ongoing journey of developing personal awareness. It is also a temporal measure that will fluctuate depending on our investment in personal growth.

In my journey through the programme, I connected more frequently with my inner experiences and the limitations of my Type Five worldview, and actively sought to not default to my over-analytical and solitary tendencies. The latter was difficult given that we were learning new ways of being in unprecedented times, and maintaining self-awareness, especially during periods when I was experiencing a high level of strain, required a lot of work and would therefore not be consistently maintained. Additionally, my development path during this period in residence called for intentionally striking a balance between a focus on knowledge and increasing the meaningful emotional connections that I have with other people, and being present in the emerging and untidy everyday world. It is worth noting that at a lower level of integration and self-mastery, our behaviour is driven by our core fears and reactiveness and at higher levels of integration, there is often an element of “letting go” of these core fears, drawing more consistently on the strengths of our Enneagram type, as well as understanding our limitations and transcending them.

My Enneagram report also taught me that those things that trigger us generally say more about us than about the person or situation that is responsible for triggering us. This is true for all Enneagram types and we need to develop a deep understanding of our triggers with the intention to project less, self-regulate more and consciously manage our automatic reactions to these triggers. With deep discomfort, I recall a violent incident that occurred late 2020 and how the Enneagram report enabled me to identify my responses and reactions. When it mattered most, the report reminded me not to intellectualise my feelings as I tend to trust my mind more to make sense of what I experience on an emotional level. As predicted, I found myself automatically detaching from my emotions when triggered, and reliving and reviewing them after the fact. The upside of this response is the ability to remain calm in a crisis and objectively approach situations. I do, however, need to continue doing the work of being fully present in the less than ideal reality of the now, and I hope that this will connect me to even deeper truths, patterns and the meaning of life.

Theory U is a concept that can be drawn upon to understand awareness. It is supplementary to the Enneagram. Theory U states that “the quality of results in a system depends on the quality of relationships between the players in a system, and the quality of relationships depends on the quality of awareness that those players are operating from”. Author Peter Hawkins adds that “developing leadership is less about learning new skills and more about unlearning habits and breaking free from limiting mind-sets we have already acquired”. We therefore can gain awareness and unlearn our toxic habits through the Theory U process which involves having an open mind and heart, and putting ourselves into the place of our greatest potential by suspending old habits of judgement. This process also involves journeying to a place of stillness and self-knowing, contemplating who we are and what we are here for, and acting in the now. Essentially, the success of a system or intervention is dependent on the interior condition of leaders and Theory U calls for a new social technology that allows us to tap into the Open Mind (IQ), the Open Heart (EQ), and the Open Will (SQ) - also known as spiritual/self-intelligence. High quality leadership is therefore a combination of EQ and SQ.

In sum, all personality types are defensive stances and the personas that we have help us to navigate life. However, if we do not know our personas and learn to let them go, to release those old habits that no longer serve us and do the difficult work required to grow beyond the need for these defences, we will inevitably remain limited instead of free to express our full true selves. Warren Bennis once said “to become a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult”. Therefore, in spite of the considerable strength required to conduct introspection, we must be bold enough to open up to this idea, accept the challenge to wake up to what is happening in the present and then come to know ourselves in a deep and more mindful manner.

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