Old but still valid: Leadership begins with self-leadership

Let’s start by defining the term self-leadership. In a nutshell, self-leadership is the conscious influence people have on their thoughts, feelings and actions for achieving their goals. This doesn't necessarily require holding a formal leadership position. Self-leadership can – and should – be practiced by all of us. It is not a new concept. Self-leadership has existed in various forms for thousands of years as this collection of quotes on self-leadership shows. 

The term self-leadership was coined by Charles C. Manz in the 1990s.Two centuries prior, Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game had brought self-directed learning as the basis for being successful in sports to the executive suite. 

Self-leadership is particularly important there. Leaders responsible for results and employees have a strong influence on others. They serve as role models in their companies. Their attitudes, emotions and actions rub off on those around them. Therefore, taking responsibility for themselves is simply a must for successful leaders.  

Interestingly enough, many leaders believe they don’t need self-leadership. Working at the top, they feel they have reached the final stage of their development. But just as athletes are constantly training, observing, analyzing and adapting their tactics, leadership also requires continued self-development. Circumstances may change, and previous behavior may become ineffective or even harmful.

Tip 1: Recognize the pitfalls of your autopilot

We all have an autopilot in our cockpits. In an unconscious process, our brain filters information based on previous experience. That's a good thing. It protects us from overstimulation and being overwhelmed. And it's especially important when we're being bombarded with input. Times aren’t exactly calm and laid-back, especially not for managers. 

But sometimes this autopilot is misprogrammed. Our actions and reactions don’t match our framework conditions. We are overwhelmed and can no longer cope with the tasks at hand. In such situations, blaming the circumstances and failing to take responsibility for our own actions would be like watching our autopilot run into a wall.  


Tip 2: Begin with self-awareness

Turn off your autopilot as soon as you're starting to feel overwhelmed. It’s time for self-awareness! The best tool for developing self-awareness is self-monitoring. It helps you regain control over your actions. Try to analyze when, why and under which circumstances you reacted in a certain way. Take notes. Be honest with yourself! No sugarcoating!  

Don’t wait until things get dicey. Start a habit of regular checks. This will allow you to recognize early on in which situations inadequate attitudes and behaviors might inhibit your effectiveness as a leader. More on this in tip number 7. 


Tip 3: Self-lead with purpose and goals

In which direction would you like to change your behavior? What are you trying to achieve? How will you identify your success as a leader? Define your personal leadership goals. The more specific, the better. The good old SMART rule will come in handy. 

Go one step further and start by defining yourleadership purpose. Why are you leading? What’s the ultimate effect you would like to achieve with your leadership? Your personal purpose will serve as a guiding star that provides orientation in times of turmoil. Formulate operative goals that will serve as milestones along the way. Even if your milestone goals change due to new circumstances and detours, you will still be going in the right direction, following your purpose.


Tip 4: Strengthen your self-efficacy

It’s easy to find leaders that are self-confident. But what about self-efficacy? Two similar terms with different meanings. Self-confidence is a rather stable personal trait that is described as a general feeling of being competent

Leadership self-efficacy (LSE) refers to a person's assessment of their own leadership competence, i.e., a specific ability. This can and will change. Studies have shown that leaders with strong LSE tend to be more successful. 

The best way to strengthen your self-efficacy is to make your leadership successes visible. What are you already doing well? Make sure to also record your small successes. It is the sum of your daily leadership performance that moves you forward, not a single heroic act. 

Write down which of your strengths have contributed to each of these successes. This will improve your  self-efficacy expectations. Admittedly, a bulky term, but it will make you more persistent and enable you to face challenges with greater composure.


Tip 5: Practice self-acceptance

Self-acceptance is closely related to self-efficacy. Above all, it means throwing your perfectionism overboard, being completely honest with yourself and accepting yourself without self-criticism or self-sabotage. All too often we focus on the negative in ourselves. Maybe you feel like your career isn't progressing fast enough. Maybe you're exhausted by the number of things you need to get done and think you won’t be able to deliver the desired results. 

Self-acceptance is not just about accepting your mistakes. It also means acknowledging that you are already good enough while still striving to improve. 


Tip 6: Take self-management literally

First and foremost, self-management is about self-discipline. It's about holding yourself accountable and making sure you manage your time and resources effectively. Don't go at it like mad, pushing yourself harder and harder. Instead, start to consciously prioritize the right things. The goals mentioned in tip 2 will help you prioritize.  

Taking time for your own development is just as much a part of good self-management as making sure you don't get distracted while completing important work tasks. Many managers complain that they have no time and are booked for concurrent meetings. Some even have two or three online meetings at the same time while also trying to do their emails. It's like driving two cars at the same time! One of them is driving with a barely programmed autopilot. Tip 1 explains how this may end. 

Train yourself to break the habit of doing multiple things at once. Block certain time slots. This will allow the deep focus you need to become a more effective leader in the long run. 

My blog articles on How to manage your area of responsibility more effectively and Organization in practice will provide you with further input on this topic.  


Tip 7: Create a self-reflection routine

Reflection is an integral element of self-leadership. Regularly taking time for self-reflection will help you stay aligned with your priorities and values while identifying your opportunities for improvement and growth

What else can you do improve your self-leadership?

  • Take a look at Tanveer Naaser’s Questions for self-reflection for some inspiration.
  • Start journaling regularly to establish a self-reflection habit. Use specific guiding questions to examine your attitudes, feelings and behavior, and record the most important findings in your journal every day. Harvard Business Review has dedicated an article to Leadership Journaling, which can serve as a hands-on guide.  
  • Examine your emotional agility. Recognize your patterns and pay more attention to your feelings.  Begin step by step, but start right away. This will increase your chances of real change.

I wish you much fun and success!

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