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The Ins and Outs of Self-Leadership

GREAT leadership is a cultivated art. It begins with self-leadership. At the center of great leadership is the individual who makes the difference. Leadership success or failure begins with how the leader approaches his or her own self-leadership.

Dee Hock, writing about leadership for over 20 years and a laureate in the US Business Hall of Fame shares this wisdom: “We should invest 50 percent of our leadership amperage in self-leadership and the remaining 50 percent should be divided into leading down, leading up and leading laterally.”

Chris Lowney, in his book Heroic Leadership, writes, “If you want your team to perform heroically, be a hero yourself.”

What is Self-Leadership?

Self-leadership is having a soundly developed sense of who you are, what you can do, and where you are going, coupled with the ability to influence your communication, emotions and behavior on the way to getting there (Bryant, Kazan 2012). A more succinct definition by Bryant and Kazan is: “Self-leadership is the process by which you influence yourself to achieve your objectives.” Self-leadership equates to the leadership competencies of Self Observation and Self Management, but most importantly self-leadership impacts all aspects of your life, your health, your career and your relationships. Self-leaders are self-motivated to take purposeful action and therefore make better leaders, entrepreneurs, and team members. Self-leadership should be the foundation of any Leadership Development or Executive Coaching Program, because self-leadership is a solution to a volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous world.

According to the research by Bryant and Kazan (2012), there are four different aspects to self-leadership.

  • Self-awareness: The ability to acknowledge, understand and be conscious of one’s own values, perspectives, strengths, weaknesses, leadership propensity and emotional needs.

  • Self-management: The ability to nurture and harness one’s own passion, abilities, emotions and leadership capacity in decision-making.

  • Other-awareness: The ability to acknowledge and recognize the passion, gifting, strengths, weaknesses, potential and needs of others.

  • Other-management: The ability to grow and motivate other people to develop their potential and/or fulfill the organization’s objectives.

Great leaders begin with self-awareness and move to self-management, then proceed to other-awareness, and culminate in other-management. It is not linear but an interactive effect among all four factors.

Some leaders are conscious of themselves, their personalities, idiosyncrasies, motivations, and competencies, but they cannot manage themselves, especially when dealing with their emotions and weaknesses. They lack self-control, lose their cool, become unusually critical, behave inappropriately, want to do everything, and are unable to keep their pride in check.

Why is self-leadership so important?

Appreciating others

When you truly know yourself, including both your strengths and your weaknesses, you will appreciate others. Chris Lowney, a renowned leadership expert, points out that because leaders are anchored by an appreciation of their own dignity, they develop an appreciation of the aspirations, potential, and dignity of others. This is how they transform the way they view others and their potential.

Preventing derailment

Many hotshot, rising stars self-destruct, never achieve their early potential because of the lack of self-leadership. Daniel Goleman, in his extensive study on leadership derailment, points out, “When I compared star performers with average ones in senior leadership positions, nearly 90% of the difference in their profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities.” (Goleman, 2002)

Ensuring long-term success

Great leaders have a long-term perspective for life and success. They are not here for the short-term but for the long haul. Only leaders who practice consistent self-leadership can ensure long-term success. The temptation to push for quarterly profits at all costs can derail the leader. Unless leaders have a keen sense of self-leadership, they cannot stay focused on what is important.

Leaving a legacy

All leaders leave legacies, whether good or bad. They leave their imprint on the organization through their beliefs, values and attitudes. Effective self-leadership is essentially about leaving a great legacy for the people we are leading.

There are two observations that I believe are worth consideration when talking about self-leadership:

First, self-leadership is an ongoing process of self-reflection. As Lowney writes, “Self awareness is no one-time project. No less essential than the initial assessment of one’s strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview is the ongoing, everyday habit of self-reflection, the examen. It’s an opportunity to measure life — a little bit at a time — against principles and goals.” (Lowney, 2012)

Second, continual self-leadership is a mark of leadership maturation. Personal leadership is a never-ending work in progress that draws on continually maturing self-understanding. Some people never mature as leaders — they remain insecure, self-defeating, juvenile, or worse still, delinquent in their leadership development. Those who are successful leaders exhibit mature behaviors that help them continue to grow. Self-leadership is imperative if we want to be great leaders.

What is the “Self” in Self-Leadership?

It is easy to incorrectly assume what the “self” in self-leadership represents.

“Self,” in this context, doesn’t just mean “you” or “me.” Our true Self (capital “S”) is the organizing principle within our psyches. This Self already possesses all the qualities we seek to develop or integrate to become a mature adult.

Jay Earley, psychologist and author of Self-Therapy explains:

We all have a core part of us that is our true Self, our spiritual center. When our extreme parts are not activated and in the way, this is who we are. The Self is relaxed, open, and accepting of yourself and others. When you are in Self, you are grounded, centered, and non-reactive. You don’t get triggered by what people do. You remain calm and unruffled, even in difficult circumstances …

When you are in Self, you come from a depth of compassion, enabling you to be loving and caring toward others as well as yourself and your parts. The Self is like the sun—it just shines.

(Earley, 2011)

Earley highlights the qualities of Self discussed in both Western integrative therapies and Eastern spiritual traditions: connected, curious, compassionate, calm, centered, and grounded.

The goal of self-leadership is to navigate through our various parts, tendencies, and conditioning so our Self can shine forth.

Why is True Self-Leadership So Rare?


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