The art of getting to know yourself and become a better leader


One word which in recent years has become more frequently used in the workplace, is self-leadership. But what does self-leadership really mean and in what way is it a good thing? And are there any risks?

Let us start with a brief historical introduction:

Charles C Manz, researcher and author of numerous books on leadership, coined the term in 1982. He explained self-leadership as follows:

Your own influence on leading yourself to perform tasks for which you are naturally motivated, but also to be able to carry out necessary work for which you may not feel naturally motivated.

In other words, how you can make yourself do what you enjoy (easy!), but also that which you do not enjoy so much (difficult!).

During the 40 years since the term was coined, interest in the concept of self-leadership has increased, not least because more and more companies realise that there is considerable profit to be made when your employees are more in control of their working hours and are able to make more decisions themselves.

When the pandemic hit us nearly three years ago and many people started working from home, almost overnight we were thrown into a kind of involuntary self-leadership. When managers and colleagues were no longer within easy reach, a larger focus was placed on us, on ourselves. For example, we had to make more decisions ourselves, when there was no longer anyone nearby with whom we could easily discuss matters or whom we could ask for advice. We also had more time to reflect on our behaviour and habits when the workplace routines no longer governed our lives in the same way.

In addition, research has contributed to our knowing so much better today what successful self-leadership looks like. And, which is equally important, what leadership skills are involved when we have to lead ourselves.

One example is McKinsey, an American consultancy, who last year conducted a large survey among ca 18,000 employees in 15 countries concerning a number of different leadership styles and what impact these may have on the possibilities of a successful working life. 56 skills were listed and divided into four groups: cognitive behaviour, interpersonal, digital fluency and self-leadership. The foundational skills listed in the self-leadership category were:

Skills linked to your self-awareness and self-management:

  • Self-motivation and wellness
  • Understanding own emotions and triggers
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-control and regulation
  • Understanding own strengths
  • Integrity

Skills linked to your attitude:

  • Courage and risk-taking
  • Driving change and innovation
  • Energy, passion and optimism
  • The ability to dare break habitual patterns

Skills linked to your ability to set (and reach) goals:

  • Decisiveness
  • Goal orientation and focus
  • Grit and persistence
  • Self-development
  • The ability to cope with uncertainty

We could of course question and discuss these different skills. For example, should communication skills not be part of this list? McKinsey has instead listed this skill under the heading of cognitive skills, but it would just as well fit in here, at least if by communication skills we mean clarity…

However, the message is probably still conveyed. We could, perhaps, try to summarise it as follows:

Self-leadership means to intentionally influence your thinking, your feelings and your actions towards your goals.

So, what are the advantages of self-leadership? The main gains which are often emphasised are:

  • Quicker decisions. If every decision is to be made by the manager, it would be quite time-consuming. And time is, as we know, at a shortage in many corporations today.
  • Better decisions. The likelihood that the manager knows more than the collective knowledge among all the employees is quite small, no matter how knowledgeable the manager is.
  • Increased efficiency. Quicker decisions combined with better decisions can only lead to one thing: increased efficiency.
  • More enjoyable. To be able to manage yourself to a larger extent means that the work becomes more interesting, positively challenging, attractive, not to mention more enjoyable.
  • Increased engagement. To be able to take responsibility for your own ideas does, most likely, lead to an increased desire to really succeed in your projects. An engagement and commitment boost, indeed.

Here we need to address the risks, are there are obviously some too. These can be summarised in one, but oh-so-important, bullet point:

 Lack of information and clarity. What mandate do the employees really have? What decisions are they allowed to make and which ones are they not? Are the goals clear to everyone? Is everyone aware of the requirements and values of the company? Are you able to plan your working hours completely independently? What do you do if you require help? How do you follow things up? How do you prioritise if you cannot fit everything in? And many, many other questions…

It is here that you, as a manager, have a very important role. There is a misconception that self-leadership would lead to the manager becoming redundant. This is not the case, but the tasks and the role of the manager will change. The manager becomes more like a coach for a football team – they have to make the over-arching tactical and strategical decisions and ensure that the players are given the best possible conditions to make their own decisions, but will be careful not to slide on to the pitch and actually kick the ball…

This said, perhaps it is time to change the definition of self-leadership to this:

A life-long learning in the art of knowing and understanding yourself. And how this, through your actions, affects your life and opportunities as well as those of people around you, at work and elsewhere.

Or, as we like to say here at The New Leadership:

If you can lead yourself, you can also lead others…

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