Self-leadership explained: origin, concept & awesomeness (+4 reflection exercises)
Simply speaking, self-leadership is the practice of knowing and influencing oneself. If you have strong self-leadership skills, you have a clear sense of your self and your purpose, you know exactly what you’re aiming for in life and how to get there. Sounds pretty cool, don’t you think?
If you asked me what baffles me the most about self-leadership, I’d say it’s that it’s still not a word we use in our everyday language – nor a skill we teach our kids at school. In fact, I think if we were born with an instruction booklet for life, how to learn the art of self-leadership would be the title of Chapter 1.
However, having recently been mentioned as a top skill to learn and bring to the job (any job!) in the 21st century, I am confident things are about to change.
The concept of self-leadership first emerged from the professional development literature in the 1980’s based on the notion that self-insight, self-goal setting and self-regulation could fundamentally increase productivity and job satisfaction.
Charles Manz, who coined the term self-leadership, defined it as
“a self-influence process and set of strategies that address what is to be done (e.g., standards and objectives) and why (e.g., strategic analysis) as well as how it is to be done . . . [it] incorporates intrinsic motivation and has an increased focus on cognitive processes.”
(Charles Manz, 1991)
Research shows that stronger self-leaders are not only more productive, but also better team-players; they have fewer days of absence and higher levels of job satisfaction. Despite the overwhelmingly positive impacts of self-leadership at work, for some reason, the self-leadership concept has remained largely in the organisational leadership and professional development arena to date.
Self-leadership offers a framework combining all the elements crucial for behaviour change and goal attainment. In the past, the term was often used synonymously with self-regulation or self-management. However, while self-leadership includes self-regulatory processes, it also includes the independent determination of goals as well as extensive self-knowledge.
The foundation of self-leadership self-knowledge: Once you know who you are, including your values, talents, skills and strengths, you can determine goals that are meaningful to you. Together, they determine your WHY and WHAT or your PURPOSE.
The next question is about HOW to attain those goals, your strategy. This is where self-regulation comes into play. I like to think of self-regulation as a simple project management framework, called plan-do-review (repeat).
Just like you wouldn't rock up to an exam or speaking gig without preparation, you shouldn't approach new goals without a plan. This includes optimisation of the goal (i.e. tweaking it in a way that makes you most likely to achieve it), harnessing helpful resources from your environment, mobilising social support and making a contingency plan in case things go wrong.
Committed action includes putting the plan into practice. For many, taking action is the hardest part, as they are waiting for the perfect moment to begin (new year's resolutions, anyone?) or to feel ready/ confident (I spoke about the real relationship between action and confidence here).
Possibly the most important part about self-leadership is the practice of regularly and frequently monitoring yourself. Regular self-monitoring practices allow you to identify if things are going according to plan or if you're coming off track, such as by procrastinating or unknowingly eliminating your cognitive dissonance.
So what if you realise that you have come off track? You need to identify why, adjust your plans and repeat the whole process. If you can embrace failure and recover from a setback, you prove resilience. And if you apply resilience repeatedly over time, you prove grit - and with that the most important ingredient of success.
Fact is that some form of failure or setback along your goal journey is almost inevitable. There is a German saying about the two fundamental rules in life: 1. Things turn out different; and 2. Than expected (yes, humour is a rather serious matter in Germany).
Mastering the practice of this self-regulation process in order to execute your goal plan will take time. We're not robots and the world is full of distractions and temptations. That's why it's important to learn how to maximise your own potential, motivate yourself, adopt a growth mindset and apply self-coaching skills.
The more you practice, the more natural these habits will become. Here are some reflective exercises to help you get started:
Think about your own self-leadership experience in the past: When have you had to apply self-leadership skills? What challenges have you mastered in the past? What did you do that got you to the finish line?
In what life areas or situations could you currently do with stronger self-leadership skills?
What goals do you have for the future, where you could use strong self-leadership competencies?
If you had perfect self-leadership skills, what would be different in your life? How would you live?