For many of us, the way we are working post pandemic has changed dramatically since Covid-19 arrived in our societies. We live in a world with greater flux and change, more fragmentation and isolation as working in a non-office environment is becoming the norm. While organisations are grappling with how to regulate this new way of working from being fully flexible, to stipulating percentage time in the office, or being dogmatic like Elon Musk demanding full presenteeism in the physical office, I have been often asked what skills we need to develop as leaders and employees in this new, emerging work environment.

One such skill, or set of skills, that has been mainly hidden in our vocabulary for almost 40 years now is Self-Leadership. Charles C. Manz in 1983 is credited to be the original who first described self-leadership, refining his definition in 1986 to involving a “comprehensive self-influence perspective that concerns leading oneself toward performance of naturally motivating tasks as well as managing oneself to do work that must be done but is not naturally motivating”. Initially seen as a skill needed for leadership styles such as authentic leadership, it has more recently been recognised to complement the concept with insights from positive psychology research, with writers such as Marieta Du Plessis (2019) offering the following definition:

“Positive self-leadership refers to the capacity to identify and apply one’s signature strengths to initiate, maintain, or sustain self-influencing behaviours”.

In other words, it is about working on ourselves to be the best we can be to be able to maximise the influence we have on others and our work output by reaching our own capabilities. It is about choosing who we are, what we do, and who we become. You don’t have to be a people leader to excel in self-leadership, however, some of the best people leaders are great at self-leadership.

I mentioned that self-leadership is a skill or could be seen as a set of skills. It brings together the concepts of self-awareness and self-management along with aspects of positive psychology, being able to identify and articulate your values and goals and having the self-determination and drive to accomplish them by embracing personal change and optimism with a can-do attitude. There are a number of models and tools on the web that approach self-leadership in different ways. I have tried to summarise the key common aspects below.

Why is self-leadership important now? The “distance” we are working from our colleagues and peers has now increased through hybrid and dispersed working. The reliance on formal development from our organisation and motivation to learn from our peers has potentially been watered down. Now is the time that those who can find their own self-motivation and, through this, identify their path to continual self-improvement will respond the most positively to the latest way of working. The ownness is more on us, as individuals, to drive our own learning. Developing our own self-leadership skills can help us identify the opportunities and gaps we need to develop. It also shows how separate behavioural theories such as motivation, emotional intelligence and positive psychology come together to improve the individual in a more connected and wholesome way. Self-leadership is a way for each of us to take the initiative for our own development.

The common skill areas of self-leadership:

1)  Self-Knowledge

Self-leadership starts with self-awareness. To identify where you need to develop, you first need to understand where you are starting from. Firstly, you need to understand who you are and what you stand for as an individual: What are the values you want to hold yourself to and what are the goals for all aspects of your life, both personal and professional, and how will these blend together? This gives the solid basis to start your self-leadership journey.

Reflection is an important skill to master to increase your self-knowledge. Carving out time in your week to reflect on your performance is important if you want to identify opportunities for growth. Self-awareness increases your emotional intellect and the understanding of the impact you have on others. Reflecting on the emotions that you have felt through your working day and challenging the appropriateness of these can identify possible flaws in your behaviours and your approach to the world that you can investigate as opportunities for change. Understanding these behaviours and increasing your awareness of the connection between your values, your goals, the motivators that these produce and how this manifests itself in your behaviour is key to your self-knowledge and the foundations to be highly skilled in self-leadership.

2)  Mindset

Pulling from recent decades and the emerging research around the branch of Positive Psychology since the APA launched it in 2000, a positive mental attitude and mindset is key to being effective as a self-starter and to obtain a high level of skill in self-leadership. Having an enthusiasm for learning and growth, which combines with the humility that you are never the finished article.

This learning mindset requires focus and discipline, a level of willpower to continually push yourself to develop your knowledge, skills and behaviour. In psychological terms, this would be a measure of optimism, a measure of self-efficacy and a high level of intrinsic motivation.

Finally, along with the mindset of focus and willpower also needs to be an acceptance of embracing failure and having the self-compassion that if you are going to try and improve yourself then sometimes you might not get it right first time. The ability to “not beat yourself up” when things do not turn out as planned in your development activities is important to maintain the can-do positive mindset.

Daniel Pink’s work on intrinsic motivation in his book Drive around autonomy, mastery and purpose links very well to both the areas of self-knowledge and mindset, as does the work by Deci and Ryan on Self Determination Theory. In addition, extensive literature on emotional intelligence that Daniel Goleman has popularised alongside others, looking at self-awareness and self-regulation overlaps with this part of self-leadership. Goleman himself also drew the connection between the two areas of EQ and self-leadership in recent works in the last decade.

3)  Cognitive Challenge

Another aspect of self-leadership identified by some frameworks include the skill of being able to challenge your established thinking patterns and your pre-conceived ideas of what is the “right” way of doing things. Having the willingness to let go and move from the area of safety, comfort and status quo into the learning space of change and taking risk is sometimes one of the biggest hurdles to raising your level of self-leadership. Having a high level of self-awareness and self-knowledge is not enough unless it is followed by the desire to try new things.

This is also where those who have the ability of critical thinking will see success. The behaviour of curiosity and the ability to question everything will apply some rigour to how you approach self-development and increases the level of challenge you will hold yourself to account for in self-leadership.

4)  Action Orientation

Those who are successful at self-leadership have the ability to harness the ecosystem that they work and live in to grow in a sustainable way and to have a positive impact on others around them. One common way this can happen is to mobilise the social support you have access to around you. This can be through identifying coaches, mentors and teachers that can help create conversations and new thinking in the direction you want to develop in. Those who surround themselves with others who have certain skills that are more advanced than their own see this as an opportunity to grow into these gaps, rather than a shortfall of their own current capability.

In addition, those who are strong in self-leadership skills create a positive impact on others, being the change in themselves that they want to see around them – in society or team culture. In this way they create positive benefit and behavioural change in others through role modelling their desired behaviours, utilising one of the oldest learning styles of Social Learning Theory.

In summary, my love of the concept of self-leadership is that it could almost be called a “meta-theory” of organisational psychology. It brings together three theories that I think are crucial for the modern leader and/or team member to be successful:

  1. Self-awareness from emotional intelligence
  2. Positive mindset from positive psychology
  3. Drive from intrinsic motivation

Self-leadership shows how these three areas can work together as a whole to energise us into reaching our capability in a way that improves ourselves with the willpower coming from within us, not without, yet having a positive infectious impact on others. In this hybrid world of working, which we are becoming more a part of, if we can grow the skills of self-leadership in our leaders and our team members, dispersion and distance no longer becomes a hurdle to sustainable people growth at work. Each individual will have the skills of self-leadership, and the power of our people will be unlocked from within, to ensure a sustainable future and culture for the organisation.