Many of us are constantly looking for ways to improve ourselves. Often, this means critiquing or, even worse, criticizing our self-perceived flaws. We berate ourselves, telling ourselves we need to be thinner, more successful, harder working, more lovable, more compassionate and better looking.
But as we know, criticizing our imperfections doesn’t help our psyche or our lives. It doesn't solve our problems or make us the things we think we're not. We just feel worse.
Instead, why not embrace the concept of self-leadership? This involves being self-aware, not self-critical and taking real responsibility for ourselves — and through this model, we can find meaningful fulfillment.
Charles Manz was the first to name and describe self-leadership, defining it as “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.”
Self-leadership refers to governing ourselves: our actions, our responsibilities and our behaviors.
The concept means you’re able to lead yourself in an effort to achieve your own goals, both personally and professionally. In understanding how to govern yourself, you’ll be better able to lead others.
In order to possess self-leadership abilities, you’ll need to develop a strong grasp of your own identity, your priorities, your values and your goals in life. It also requires emotional intelligence, which involves being able to understand and control your emotions and exercise empathy in your relationships with others — again, both personally and professionally.
If you don’t feel like you have strong self-leadership now, you can cultivate it in yourself. In fact, it requires continual self-assessment and learning.
Without coming to terms with your priorities and values, you’ll never truly know why you do what you do. Having a sense of purpose will ultimately make you a better worker and person overall. Self-leadership allows you to take a step back and reflect on what’s really important to you and give you a mission and sense of achievement when you accomplish something that’s meaningful to you.
How do you work with others? Communication is an essential skill in the workplace and beyond. Self-leadership allows you to improve your communication skills and collaborate more effectively with your team and others. It will help you work through problems, think more critically and work with people creatively.
Self-leadership means accepting yourself, flaws and all, and recognizing that no one is perfect. Instead, you’ll learn to focus on the aspects of your life and work that matter the most to you — your underlying values — instead of perseverating on the things you can’t change or the things that just don’t matter so much in the big picture. Ultimately, this will allow you to become more comfortable with yourself.
Gaining a stronger understanding of yourself means knowing your strengths. Having the ability to recognize your best qualities will allow you to become more confident in your overall person and abilities. You’ll also be more willing and able to receive constructive feedback and act on it without feeling bad about yourself.
When you’re more able to lead yourself, you’ll be able to lead others, too. People will look up to you when you exercise compassion, both toward yourself and the people around you. This will enable you to have a stronger impact on the world, leaving your mark in a way that is both intentional and valuable.
When something goes wrong, many of us are quick to strong emotions: anger, distress, self-doubt or even despair. You might even shut down and feel like you can’t control anything, perhaps berating yourself for doing everything wrong along the way. But when you’ve cultivated the skill of self-leadership, these complex situations will cause you less stress, such that they won’t cloud your ability to problem-solve or react in a more even-tempered, rational way. You’ll be better equipped to deal with difficult situations — and difficult emotions — with a clear head.
Being able to govern yourself and regulate your emotions will make you a more productive person overall. That’s because you won’t get bogged down with and sidetracked by the things that don’t really matter, allowing you to focus on the things that do. This makes you a better employee at work and more efficient with your time.
When you’re a better leader to yourself, it stands to reason that you’ll be a better leader to others. You’ll know how to tap into your own strengths and be able to recognize the strengths of others. Moreover, you’ll influence others by setting a good example of having emotional intelligence, being productive and not letting complex situations and your own emotions get the better of you.
When you are able to self-lead, people take notice. They’ll see you being more efficient with your time and not letting the little things bother you. They’ll notice your empathy and compassion and respond in kind — leading to better relationships.
What do you stand for? Understanding your own values is a prerequisite for developing self-leadership. The good news is that you don’t have to work toward creating these values — they’re already part of you; you just need to take the time to identify what they are.
To come to terms with your values, spend some time reflecting on what’s truly important to you. Consider, for example, what you wanted to do as a child when you grew up, the charities and nonprofits to which you donate money, the ways you spend your time when you’re not working and doing what you “have” to do and what truly makes you happy. It’s a good idea to write them down so you can refer back to your values.
Along with considering your values, think about — really think about — your strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has both. When you’re honest with yourself about your flaws and attributes, you’ll be better able to leverage your strengths and work on improving your weaknesses, should you feel that they’re holding you back.
This will allow you to make better decisions. You’ll learn to recognize what you need to do to let your positive characteristics shine through and be more successful, while not letting your negative characteristics interfere with your success.
This is not the same thing as being self-critical. You’re not spending time trying to make your weaknesses disappear — chances are, that’s not going to happen (at least not overnight). Instead, you’re looking for ways to focus on your strengths and let them dominate.
Self-leadership involves discipline. You’ll need to stay focused on the things you need to accomplish without getting sidetracked by challenges or hiccups. In order to develop a sense of dedication and productivity, reflect on the values you previously identified. You’ll need to hold yourself accountable for your responsibilities. Learn how to prioritize responsibly. You can’t do everything at once, so practice managing your time and identifying the most important things you have on your plate.
You should also work on minimizing and working through distractions. And there will always be distractions. These are the issues that will stress you out and eat up your time. Try creating a schedule, factoring free time and time for relaxing, and ensuring that you stick to it. There are many techniques to help you cultivate discipline, such as the Pomodoro method, which involves working in short sprints to complete tasks.
Becoming more self-aware isn’t magic; you can’t snap your fingers and make it happen. But there are practices you can add to your repertoire to become more self-aware, which will allow you to gain self-leadership as well.
One way to do this is to engage in mindfulness meditation. If you practice it routinely, you’ll not only become more self-aware, but you’ll also improve your mental and physical health, among many other benefits.
Another suggestion is to routinely write in a journal, which allows you to get your thoughts out on paper and learn what makes you tick, what sets you off and what you really believe.
Self-leadership isn’t a quality you can only develop on your own. It also involves input from others. In order to recognize how others truly see you, you should seek out their feedback (constructive, of course).
In your professional life, you can do this in a structured way, by routinely soliciting constructive criticism from managers, peers and subordinates (the last one is crucial, so don’t overlook what could be invaluable feedback!). Remember not to take feedback personally; you’re seeking it out intentionally in order to improve yourself.
It’s a bit more difficult to do this in your personal life because circumstances under which this is appropriate are unlikely to arise frequently. But, if you seek out opportunities — asking for advice from a close friend, speaking with a therapist and so on — you’re likely to find them.
Accountability is essential for self-leadership. It’s difficult to not immediately become defensive when you’ve made a mistake or face criticism, but in order to improve yourself in all aspects of your life, you have to take responsibility. Don’t jump to blaming someone else. Instead, admit when you’re wrong. Don’t spend too much time thinking about what’s going wrong. Instead, work to develop solutions to a problem.
Holding yourself accountable will lead to greater productivity and self-acceptance. You know you make mistakes, but you should also know that your mistakes don’t define you. This ability to reflect and work toward improving yourself and the circumstances will make you a better leader. It will also help you motivate the people around you. Nobody is interested in being around or taking orders from somehow who’s always blaming you and never accepting responsibility; they’re much more likely to support you and listen to what you say when you hold yourself accountable and work toward developing a better model.
In both the business world and your personal life, self-leadership is an important quality to have. Not only will it allow you to overcome challenges, but it will serve as a compass for achieving, understanding and following your goals, being honest and authentic with yourself and others and motivating and improving yourself overall, all while accepting that you’re not perfect. It can even help you gain a stronger awareness of yourself and others.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn. She has written content for organizations including Penguin Random House, CollegeVine, Studio Institute, Touro College, ACUE, and many others. Her essays and satire have appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Funny-ish, Jane Austen's Wastebasket, xo Jane, and other publications.
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