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Self-Leadership Is the First Form of Leadership

leaders at every level logoBecause they have no choice, people submit to managerial authority. Unlike management, when it comes to leadership, we all choose who we will follow. It’s a voluntary act. Effective leaders have followers who willingly – even eagerly – choose to follow them. One of the factors that influences whether or not we choose to follow someone else is how effective that individual is when it comes to self-leadership.

Leadership of others is guiding, inspiring, challenging, enabling and ennobling them to pursue new possibilities. Effective leaders choose evidence-based behaviors that make it possible for others to see them as leaders and follow them accordingly. 

Self-leadership is the conscious choice of behaviors to stay on track and motivated, to accept and even pursue challenges, and to make quality decisions that benefit one’s self and others. 

Self-leadership is thought to be both the first stage of leadership and the highest form of leadership.   

Understanding the Importance of Self-Leadership 

Figure daydreaming about powerDr. Warren Bennis said “To know yourself as a leader is to know yourself.” He also said “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It’s precisely that simple, and it’s also that difficult.” 

Heady stuff. But Bennis should know. A professor of leadership at the USC Marshall School of Business, he’s widely viewed as a pioneer in the field of leadership study, particularly values-based leadership. 

Dr. Bennis also believed that “self-awareness is the most difficult task any of us faces. But until you know yourself and all your strengths and weaknesses, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word.”

 Couple that with one last quote, this one from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself if true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” 

Self-leadership is impossible without self-awareness. You need to know your: 

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Values
  • Motivations
  • Emotional Triggers
  • Vulnerabilities
  • Boundaries
  • Purpose
  • Personality Style
  • Impact on Others 

You also need to know how to manage your emotions and responses. Maintaining self-control is imperative, more often than not, for being effective and fulfilling your purpose in ways that are aligned with your values. 

Self-control, self-management and self-regulation have all been studied extensively. Rolled up into one, they are three of the four ingredients of self-leadership. The fourth ingredient is less about what’s expressed and visible to others. It’s the driver behind what you choose to express. It’s knowing and being guided by your values. The alignment starts with values and the outward displays are reflections of those core values. 

Self-leadership is important for numerous reasons. Chief among these is that it provides you with clarity, focus, and barometers you can use to prioritize what you do and how you navigate through your day. You’ll be more confident and consistent when you’ve developed yourself as a leader. 

Strong self-leaders develop key habits that make them more effective in their personal and professional endeavors. If you’d like to learn more about the habits for personal effectiveness, this FREE mini-course on People First Leadership Academy is a fantastic starting point. 

If You Can’t Lead Yourself, You Can’t Effectively Lead Others 

A 1991 study (Manz & Sims) was the first to conclude that self-leadership is an absolute prerequisite for effective and authentic leadership of others. For organizational effectiveness, the findings were profound: workers who are more autonomous and self-leading produce more. 

Later studies found, to no one’s surprise, that people are more confident in leaders who exhibit strong self-control, are clear about their own direction and values, and demonstrate alignment (integrity) between their actions and words. 

All too often, technically proficient people are promoted into management roles because they are technically proficient and come across as “strong” or “outspoken.” Their assertiveness, even when it crosses the line and becomes aggressiveness, is seen as a positive quality. The assumption is that others will listen to and follow the person who appears strong. 

It doesn’t always work out that way. If the individual isn’t good at self-regulation and has outbursts of emotion or “strong” opinions that drown out other voices, they will ultimately fail as a leader. People will stop following them. They’ll lose confidence because they can’t trust the individual who hasn’t mastered self-leadership. Despite all their technical proficiency and positive qualities, this becomes a major career roadblock. 

Until this individual makes behavior changes related to self-leadership, they will be able to rely only on management authority. People will do only what’s required and nothing more because this is a manager, not a leader. 

In situations like this, there’s good news. It is possible to recover by making behavioral changes. Learning self-leadership is always a part of a quality leadership development program. While it would be better to develop self-leadership before taking on a manager-level role, it’s not uncommon for people to ascend in title and oversight before learning (sometimes the hard way) to be effective leaders of self and others.

Self-leadership, as defined above, includes knowing your values AND displaying behaviors that are aligned with those values. Look for leadership development programs that incorporate those very important elements. 

What To Do If You Don’t Think of Yourself as a Leader 

We’ve added too much weight to the word “leader.” When people hear this word they think of CEOs, Presidents, and other very senior-level roles. The myths and misperceptions about leadership suggest that it’s reserved for a select few. 

That’s why so many people exclude themselves from leadership. They don’t think they are or could ever be a leader. They’re comparing themselves to people who are 30 years older, 7 levels up on the org chart, and oozing confidence in everything they do. 

It’s not a valid comparison. 

Like it or not, know it or not, you are already a leader. There are times when you speak or act and others pay attention. They follow your lead. They wait to see how you respond before proceeding. 

Leadership is all around us all the time. We learn leadership from people close to us – parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, friends, co-workers, etc. In those same small circles, people are learning leadership from you, too. 

Research confirms that everyone does, at times, lead. That others rely on YOU, at times, to lead. You can’t deny that you are a leader, at least in some small ways. 

Nonetheless, imposter syndrome and other self-limiting beliefs can loom large. They keep us from pursuing our full potential. To tame these feelings and move past them, take a look at this free, on-demand webinar from the People First Potential Channel on BrightTALK. 

If you don’t think of yourself as a leader of other people, instead think of your ability to lead yourself. That’s a private matter, with no risk of public humiliation if you fail. It’s a series of small choices you can make each day. It’s a continual process, one that you don’t have to master overnight. In fact, the mistakes when learning self-leadership are the most valuable parts of the learning. 

The stakes are low and the rewards are high when you pursue leadership development, even if you’re the only one you want to lead. Longer term, if you choose to, you’ll have a head start for stepping into other kinds of leadership. You’ll be ready for it because you’ll be credible and effective after you’ve worked on self-leadership.