Becoming a Wise Leader: Cultivating Your Situation Awareness

Leadership without wisdom is not true leadership.

Four strategies on improving your managerial wisdom were discussed in my previous blog:

  • Shifting focus from short-term gains/gratifications toward longer-term strategies
  • Continuously reflecting on particular situations (i.e., what happened, examples, counsels of others, etc.) to learn from experience
  • Understanding the limit of your knowledge, skills and abilities
  • Expanding your practical knowledge by developing the ability to interpret situations, accumulating a repertoire of possible responses and implementing a chosen response skillfully

One strategy to expand practical knowledge is to cultivate your sense of situation awareness. Situation awareness is the perception of elements in the environment, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future.[1]

Dr. Mica Endsley, a former chief scientist of the United States Air Force and a leading scholar on situation awareness, identified three levels where it can be developed:

Level I: Perceptions of elements in the environment

The first step in achieving situation awareness is to be able to perceive the state, characteristics and dynamics of relevant elements in the environment. A driver needs to be aware of the positions of other vehicles and obstacles on the road, their interactions along with the status and dynamic of his/her own car. A leader should perceive elements such as employee attitudes, behaviors, performance, motivation or warning signs of employee dissatisfaction, burnout or interpersonal conflicts.

However, it is not enough to be able to perceive all the factors in certain situations. One needs to learn to make sense of the connections of these elements, hence the second level of situation awareness.

Level II: Comprehension of the current situation

Comprehension of the current situation is based on a thorough analyses of all first-level elements. It goes beyond simply being aware of the elements that are presented. As a decision maker, one not only needs to draw a holistic picture of the situation with sufficient knowledge on level I elements — but also have the ability to understand the significance of those elements in relation to one’s goal.

For example, a good strategic leader will know firsthand about the fact that two of the organization’s main competitors are planning a merge, while switching all of their products from their traditional platforms to online. He/she should also put together these bits of data and determine what their objectives are and how these would affect the organization.

After this analysis, we will then come to our next level of situation awareness: the ability to project the future status based on the understanding of the current situation.

Level III: Projection of future status

This level is achieved through knowledge from elements of the first two levels. Use this knowledge to project the future actions of the elements in the environment.

This level is especially important, because the ultimate goal of building situation awareness is to utilize the information collected to predict the most likely outcomes as a result of these elements and to use this information for decision making. For example, a military leader who is proficient at situation awareness should be able to make relatively accurate predictions of the enemies’ next move based on information from the frontline.

Or using the earlier example, the strategic leader who is aware of the competitors’ plan of completing a merger and switching platform for their products should be able to make quick decisions to counter their moves in order to maintain a competitive advantage.

All in all, it is a long process to develop managerial wisdom. We hope these steps — perceiving the elements in the environment, understanding how the environment impacts your goal and being able to use this information to predict future events — can help you start your endeavor to improve and hone your leadership skills.


[1] Endsley, M.R. (1995). Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors, 37, 32-64.

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