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Self Leadership

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Leaders spend most of their time focusing on external factors. Business processes, people, different targets. They try to shape and influence external factors, to achieve the goals and objectives of the company. But how much time is spent focusing on the leader, on you?

“Mastering others is a strength. Mastering yourself is true power”, Lao Tzu.

Self-leadership allows a leader to align their values and their strengths with their purpose, which in turn, helps them get the most out of themselves and others by focusing on what is important. It also helps you to navigate challenging situations and reduce stress and negativity as you have a higher level of emotional intelligence.

What is self-leadership

Leadership generally focuses on influencing others to achieve a goal or target, whilst self-leadership focuses on observing and managing yourself. Self-leadership is very similar to mature adulthood, and research in developmental psychology shows that mature adulthood is rare.

With mature adulthood, self-leadership, we stop placing responsibility and authority in the hand of others and become responsible for our actions and behaviours. This requires qualities like self-awareness, honesty, self-knowledge and self-discipline. Most people try to drive themselves forward by using self-criticism, this is not self-leadership, and this is not effective.

Why is True Self Leadership So Rare?

Firstly, the current corporate culture doesn’t support or encourage self-leadership. It doesn’t support mature psychological development, because we as a society have placed more value on wealth and materiality over personal development and positive wellbeing. Jim Collins stated that “our problem lies in the fact that our culture has fallen in love with the idea of the celebrity CEO.” Because we idolise business achievements, these individuals become more and more ego-centric and show a decreasing amount of psychological development.

Secondly, self-leadership requires effort and daily practice and attention to make progress, it does NOT happen by accident. Because society as a collective has placed a dominant value on money, it is almost out of the question to place any focus on self-leadership.

Lastly, there is an overall lack of emotional intelligence in today’s society.

Why is it important?

Self-leadership is important because it is a necessary criterion to meet to accomplish your professional goals and to be a great leader to others; good leaders lead by example. Self-leadership allows a leader to influence others to take action to meet the goals of the company, and in doing so benefits an organisation as a whole.

Self-leadership helps you achieve your personal goals for your life and your career, makes you more efficient and productive, keeps you motivated and accountable, allows you to build stronger relationships with co-workers and most importantly,

How do you achieve self-leadership?

There are many resources defining self-leadership and explaining why it is important in different aspects of your life. The real question is, how do we achieve this?

To answer this question the following topics will be discussed:

• Self-discovery

• Self-acceptance

• Self-management

• Self-growth

Self-Leadership: Self-Discovery

To be a great leader, you need to first understand yourself. This sounds easy and straightforward, but often people get so caught up in their daily tasks and work, that they don’t notice little changes occurring within themselves.

The first step to self-discovery is understanding yourself and how the brain works. The brain hasn’t changed in the last 50 000 years.

That might not have sunk in, the brain has not changed for the last 50 000 years…

The ultimate function of the brain is to survive, and the survival needs can be summarised as SCARF, a model created by David Rock. (You can read more in detail about the model in David Rock’s book, Your Brain At Work.)

S: Status

C: Certainty

A: Autonomy

R: Relatedness

F: Fairness.


Every person needs status. In the cave days, the status of being the strongest, the smartest or the fastest meant you were more likely to survive than others. In today’s world, status plays out a bit differently. Your status might refer to your job title, your level of importance, your role as a parent etc. (Rock, 2020)


Certainty is a primary need of the brain. Take this year for example. The coronavirus and the lockdown that came with it bought an immense amount of uncertainty with it. There was no certainty that your family would remain healthy, that you would have a job in the next month or even how the next month, next week or next day would plan out. This level of uncertainty leads to an increase in mental illness around the world, an increase in suicides and an enormous increase in stress. (Rock, 2020)


Humans have a natural need to make their own choices. When people are unable to make their own choices, they become less likely to commit and their confidence falls tremendously. (Rock, 2020)


There is a reason people always lived in tribes, why we become part of an organisation or culture and why we have a group of people we connect with. It’s because there is safety in numbers and the brain knows that. People need other people they can relate to because it increases your chance of survival. (Rock, 2020)


Almost everyone values fairness, but few people know that it is a basic need of the brain. If cavemen didn’t share food equally and help one another fairly, humanity would have had a far less chance of survival. Today, we crave fairness at work, home, within our friend groups and relationships.

Once you understand these needs and become aware of your talent themes, you will be able to feed your needs and become more aware of everyday situations that diminish these needs completely. (Rock, 2020)


Becoming aware is the first step, once you are aware you can become aware of being aware, also known as meta-awareness. As you will see later in this paper, there are several things to be aware of; your emotions, the emotions of others, your philosophies and your actions. Meta-awareness is important because it helps you discover where your strengths and weaknesses are, what parts of you can change and what cannot, and most importantly what your philosophies and values are.

Discovering your "why"

At the core, each person has their own set of beliefs and values that makes them who they are. Your values affect how you approach life and relationships, and understanding them is an important part of understanding yourself.

Once you understand what is important to you, what energises you and what you believe in, you can make leadership decisions with confidence. Think about all the great leaders in history. They are great because they could stand up for what they believed in because they were 100% on what exactly they believed in.

They all had a "why".

Why do you get up in the morning? Why do you hate or enjoy your job? Why do you matter? Why should anyone else care?

As explained in Simon Sineks brillirant book, Start With Why, Your ‘why’ is an important part of you. Steve Jobs had a why, and he created an entire company following his why which is now a multi-billion company because of it. You must discover what your why is when starting your self-leadership journey because your ‘why’ will be the reason why you decide to say yes please, or no thank you to many different life and business decisions.

Self-Leadership: Self-Acceptance

Self-acceptance is about being completely honest with yourself and accepting it without self-criticism or self-sabotage. We often chose to focus on the negative aspects of ourselves, instead of building on the good that is already there.

However, it is equally important to note that self-acceptance is not just accepting that you’ve failed and moving on. It is about taking responsibility for your actions, accepting what is not going to change, and developing a plan to help you achieve your desired future.

Most importantly, self-acceptance is about owning your strengths. Many people find it easy to point out their flaws, and battle to identify their strengths, or they use generic terms such as people-person or hard working. When you can honestly identify what you are good at and what energises you, you can leverage that and achieve better results.

Understanding your talents

Your talents are a reoccurring pattern of thinking, feeling and behaviour. Have you ever noticed that certain activities energise you, while others drain the life out of you? Have you ever noticed that you pick up certain skills very quickly, yet other things you just can’t seem to grasp? Have you ever noticed how much energy a group of people give you or take away from you? These are clues to identifying your talents. The CliftonStrengths tool, created by Gallup, is a tool that helps you identify your talents and non-talents through an assessment consisting of 177 questions.

Each one of us has a unique set of talents, which managed correctly become our strengths. We also have non-patterns, which show us what type of thinking, tasks, or people drain our energy.

Understanding your strengths and non-patterns are an important part of self-awareness, and once you understand them you can begin to accept yourself, warts and all.

Self-Leadership: Self-Management

Leaders who self-manage are more productive, more focused and more independent. Self-management and self-discipline are closely linked as both involve taking responsibility and managing your time and resources effectively. The greatest resource is your own time and energy, which means that self-management is not about over-working or pushing yourself too hard. Instead, it about a good balance and prioritising.

Self-management links back to self-awareness. You need to be aware of your current habits so that you can replace bad habits with desirable ones. For example, you may have a habit of watching TV whenever you have nothing to do, where you could be busy reading a book with insightful knowledge about your industry or culture. Or maybe you have a bad habit of checking your phones every few minutes which becomes distracting, instead, you could block out time for different tasks, including checking your phone.

Self-management also means controlling impulses, such as reacting in situations that require a response. This requires self-awareness to understand what triggers certain behaviours so that you can apply self-management to remain calm. To achieve this, there are 3 different things you can do:

Label emotions

Often we find ourselves in situations where emotions get the better of us. Think about a time when someone said something that triggered intense anger within you, so much so that you said a bunch of things you didn’t mean, and ended up stirring up a fire just to find out you misinterpreted the situation. Rock, D. (2020). 

When this scenario or a similar one occurs the easiest thing to do is to label the emotion. Notice the emotion, give it a name and understand why you are feeling it. By doing this you are giving yourself time to calm down, and often just labelling the emotion gives us enough self-awareness that we can almost immediately calm down. Rock, D. (2020). 

Reappraisal of situations

Sometimes, simply labelling a situation is not enough, which means you should then reappraise the situation. This means you should look at it from a different perspective, or as the saying goes, put yourself in someone else's shoes. Often we react to a situation based on our feelings or thought, but we fail to see that there are different sides to the same story. By viewing a different perspective, we can respond accurately instead of reacting out of emotion or our own bias.

Managing your talents

Once you are aware of your talents and talent dynamics, you will also have an understanding as to how you naturally react to situations. If you know a certain situation is going to drain and upset you, the best idea is to stay away. But as we all know life is not that easy, we are often in situations that we have to deal with, that cannot be avoided, that is unplanned and completely necessary. Fortunately, once you have the awareness about your talents and non-talents, you will know what practical skills you need to develop to help you in these situations.

Self-Leadership: Self-Growth

Self-leadership is about growing and becoming a better leader. It is about being honest with yourself, recognising what you’re doing and making positive changes. It’s about developing accountability and responsibility for these right things.

Self-growth is about striving to continuously improve yourself. A good way to do this is to get a great mentor and be open to the feedback to help you develop. Imagine if Serena Williams didn’t have an amazing coach who gave her constant feedback, and instead played against a wall to practice. Would she be a world champion? Definitely not. Is a mentor necessary? I would say yes.

Self-growth is also about learning to embrace failure. Too many people fall into the fly by night success trap. This is because they see the sudden success of others, and think it is instant because they didn’t see the hours and hours of work put into mastery. They didn’t see the number of failures that person or organisation went through to achieve their success. It is important to embrace failure, and rather fail forward than try to take a massive leap there. Recognising failure as an opportunity to learn, actually helps you succeed faster. (Olson, n.d., The slight edge)


These four aspects and all the details in between form the basis of self-leadership and all of them are equally important. You cannot accept yourself until you know you. You cannot manage yourself until you accept yourself. Once you have mastered this meta-awareness, you will be able to develop, energise and inspire, not only yourself, but everyone around you- and that is why self-leadership is so much more important than simply managing the external.

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