Follow me. I’m right behind you.
Self-leadership sounds somewhat like an oxymoron.
Leadership is the process of guiding or influencing others. By definition, that implies the involvement of at least two people. You can lead up, down, and sideways – but can you lead yourself?
To date, self-leadership development has predominantly been implemented in professional development contexts (Neck & Houghton, 2006). This is based on the understanding that self-leadership enables optimal capacity and willingness to perform and is the foundation of maximum job performance (Stewart, Courtright, & Manz, 2010).
However, self-leadership is a fundamental life skill that enables people to live life with purpose and intent. Importantly, anyone can cultivate the competencies required to lead oneself.
So how can you seemingly split in two in order to lead yourself? And how can you help others become competent self-leaders? We will answer those questions here.
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This article contains:
- How to Develop Self-Leadership Skills
- 25 Strategies for Improving Self-Leadership
- Coaching in Self-Leadership: 16 Questions to Ask
- Development Plans: 4 Goals of a Session and Helpful Exercises for Clients
- Books on the Topic
- Further Reading: PositivePsychology.com’s Resources
- A Take-Home Message
How to Develop Self-Leadership Skills
Self-leadership can be understood as the process of identifying your desired experiences and intentionally directing and motivating yourself toward them (Manz, 1986).
Everyone leads themselves – it is impossible not to do so. However, some lead themselves more consciously and effectively than others. You can improve your self-leadership skills by applying them, a paradox explicitly acknowledged in the self-leadership literature (Stewart, Courtright, & Manz, 2019).
Developing self-leadership skills therefore requires understanding the concept itself and its elements, developing self-knowledge, cultivating self-monitoring habits, and deliberate practice.
Understanding the concept
Self-leadership determines what we do, why we do it, and how. It involves self-knowledge, goal setting, and self-management processes (Manz, 1986).
Self-knowledge implies insight into our values, strengths, personality, talents, skills, and passions. Based on our self-knowledge, in particular our values, we can identify our desired experiences and set goals around them. Self-management can be understood as “strategies to facilitate behaviors that reduce discrepancies from standards” (Manz, 1986).
Think of it as an iterative plan – do – review process, similar to how one manages a project.
First, a comprehensive goal attainment plan is established. This includes goal setting, consideration of environmental resources, contingency planning, and commitment. Then the plan is put into action and followed by a progress review. Depending on how closely you can realize your plan, you may adjust it and repeat the process – either until the goal is reached or, if the goal is an ongoing behavior, indefinitely.
If you want to lead yourself, you need to know who you are and what experiences are important to you. Identifying your talents, skills, and strengths enables you to pursue goals by leveraging your strong points.
Understanding your personality traits provides insights into your tendencies to think and act in certain situations. Moreover, if you know your values, you understand what matters most to you – not in the sense of a particular outcome, but rather in the sense of how you want to live.
Understanding your values empowers you to make better decisions and implement them more effectively (Kirschenbaum, 2013).
Understanding and identifying desired experiences
Having a solid understanding of yourself equips you to articulate goals about experiences that truly matter to you. It enables you to pursue them in a way that is easy and enjoyable and leaves you with a sense of meaning and purpose.
This means that your motivation will be stronger and longer lasting, your chances of achieving your goal will be greater, and you are more likely to feel truly satisfied once you do so.
Cultivating self-monitoring habits
Now let us address the elephant in the room. To fulfill the roles of both the leader and the one being led (and seemingly splitting yourself in two), one requires the ability of metacognition.
Metacognition is the ability to observe and control your own thinking processes (Whitebread & Pino Pasternak, 2010). During metacognition, the thinker takes a diffused perspective of themselves as though they were observing themselves from a distance.
This state allows them to monitor themselves and evaluate their actual performance against their desired goal performance. In other words, it enables them to manage themselves – a process necessary throughout the self-leadership journey (Stewart, Carson, & Cardy, 1996).
As is true for acquiring any new skill, the more these strategies and behaviors are practiced, the more they will be cultivated. The key aspect of developing self-leadership skills lies in continuous monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation of the relevant strategies.
25 Strategies for Improving Self-Leadership
The concept of self-leadership is broad and encapsulates numerous skills and competencies.
These are typically categorized into cognitive, behavioral, and natural reward strategies (in this article referred to as motivational strategies; Arista & Parahyanti, 2018).
11 Cognitive strategies
Cognitive self-leadership strategies enable you to identify ways to implement goal behaviors and efficiently find solutions to overcome obstacles and setbacks.
- Establishing a connection between your values and self-leadership
- Identifying your strengths and weaknesses
- Identifying desired experiences
- Challenging limiting beliefs
- Identifying cognitive dissonance and attempts to eliminate it
- Practicing ongoing positivity
- Visualizing goal behavior
- Cultivating the ability to make good decisions
- Identifying and managing emotional triggers
- Developing a growth mindset
- Setting clear intentions
8 Behavioral strategies
Behavioral self-leadership strategies allow you to implement the relevant plethora of management actions required to pursue your desired outcome.
- Cultivating self-efficacy
- Building habits
- Harnessing environmental resources
- Setting and optimizing goals
- Establishing goal plans
- Frequently reviewing progress
- Establishing accountability from yourself and others
6 Motivational strategies
Motivational strategies facilitate a continuous drive toward goal behaviors and sufficient capacity for them.
- Identifying internally rewarding actions to pursue your goals
- Maximizing autonomy, competence, and sense of relatedness for your goals
- Managing willpower
- Cultivating a process focus
- Identifying and celebrating wins
- Cultivating grit
Coaching in Self-Leadership: 16 Questions to Ask
Often coaching clients do not explicitly ask for support to develop their self-leadership skills, simply because the term self-leadership does not yet form part of common conversation. Instead, they usually have a particular desired experience or goal in mind they are hoping to attain.
However, one could argue that the ambition to develop clients’ self-leadership skills is somewhat implicit in coaching philosophy. Therefore, it is advised to work with the coachee’s proposed goal and develop their self-leadership skills toward achieving it.
To do so, these three particular self-leadership domains are worth exploring using any preferred coaching model.
Self-knowledge development supports the coachee in fostering a deeper sense of who they are. At a minimum, this should include exploration of their strengths and values.
Example questions include the following:
- How can you use your unique strengths to achieve this goal?
- Think of a time when you have achieved a similar goal in the past. What did you do? What skills did you use?
- What strengths do you think would be necessary to achieve this goal? How are your strengths aligned to that?
- What is most important to you in life in how you want to interact with others and yourself?
- Think of a time when you made an important decision. What was the circumstance, and why did you decide the way you did? What values are reflected in that decision?
Understanding the desired experience
The coach should then explore how or if the coachee’s goal is connected to their values. To do so, they can use the following questions:
- What are you hoping to experience through achieving this goal?
- Why is this experience or goal important to you?
- How is achieving this goal connected to your core values?
- What is going to happen if you do not achieve this goal?
Cultivating self-management practices
Finally, the coach should explore the self-monitoring and self-management activities of the coachee regarding implementing behavioral changes to achieve their goal.
The coach can ask several questions to explore their iterative plan – do – review practices, such as:
- What have you tried so far?
- What have you tried so far with regards to SMART goal setting and planning practices?
- What parts of your plan have you been able to realize so far?
- What problems have you encountered?
- How have you tried to overcome obstacles so far?
- How do you monitor your progress and how frequently?
- How can you ensure you stay on track toward your goal when something does not go according to plan?
Development Plans: 4 Goals of a Session and Helpful Exercises for Clients
Considering the multitude of strategies involved in self-leadership, the number of useful exercises accompanying each strategy is even larger.
The following is a selection of exercises for your clients aiming to establish a strong self-leadership foundation by identifying core values, strengths, and desired experiences, and practicing self-awareness and monitoring goal progress. Most of these exercises are available in the PositivePsychology.com Toolkit.
Goal 1: Deepening self-knowledge by identifying core values
Although our core values determine how we want to live life and significantly affect our decision making, it is surprising how little insight we often have into what they are. Yet when we have clarity over our values, choosing goals that are right for us becomes significantly easier and our chances of successfully pursuing them greatly increase. This can be accomplished in several ways.
- Take time to reflect on significant recent life events and identify the key drivers behind your decisions in those situations. Why did you act the way you did? What was it that was most important to you in those situations?
- Identify your top five values by reflecting on your key driving forces in life. You can consider using a list of values for inspiration.
- Reflect on how you would spend your last day on Earth. Importantly, reflect on the reasons behind your choices.
- Identify how self-leadership can help you to live more aligned with your values.
Goal 2: Deepening self-knowledge by identifying strengths
Similar to the average awareness of values, research has shown that most people cannot pinpoint their strengths (Linley, 2007). Following your strengths provides a sense of energy, direction, self-confidence, and resilience to achieve goals (Boniwell, 2012).
- At the end of each day, focus on what has been going well and your contribution to the positive event. Document your reflections in a strengths journal.
- Complete a strengths finder tool, such as the free Virtues in Action survey.
- Reflect on situations in which you may have been overusing or underusing your strengths. What can you do to keep your strengths in check?
- Identify your current self-leadership strengths and weaknesses and opportunities to use your character strengths to become a stronger self-leader.
Goal 3: Identifying desired experiences
Building the capability to identify meaningful goals is a key element of self-leadership. One of the challenges when doing so is to broaden one’s perspective beyond limiting beliefs. Here are some exercises to support clients to identify their desired experiences.
- For goals to deliver a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment once achieved, they must express our sense of what is important to us. Reflect on your current values, identify how you can express them more in life through your actions, and set your value-based goals around that.
- Consider the different life domains of the Wheel of Life, such as your professional career, family and friends, romantic relationship, financial situation, etc. Rate each section according to how important it is for you to be able to live by your values. Next, rate your satisfaction with each of the domains and identify which one you would like to improve and how you can accomplish that.
- When identifying goals, it is worthwhile to anticipate regret. One way to do that is by consulting the future self. Once you have identified potential goal options, visualize yourself vividly in the future and imagine how you will feel about having different options. How will your future self feel when you have reached the goal? Will your future self perceive any benefits? Are there any downfalls to choosing this particular goal?
Goal 4: Practicing self-awareness and monitoring progress
Self-awareness is important to identify where you place your attention and how you experience your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, as well as their triggers throughout the day.
Self-awareness is the practice of mindfulness with the attention directed toward yourself.
- Frequently adopt a meta-perspective throughout the day to evaluate any of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may impact your goal progress. Importantly, as you would do during mindfulness practice, remain nonjudgmental toward any of your observations.
- At the end of each day, document your experiences in a journal. Try to identify patterns between triggers and actions that support or inhibit your goal behaviors.
- Track your progress of specific self-leadership skills by using a habit tracker.
Books on the Topic
Unfortunately, there aren’t yet many books published explicitly on the topic of self-leadership. Moreover, similar to the state of scientific self-leadership publications, the few books that do exist are placed on organizational business management literature bookshelves. Of these, the following two can be recommended.
1. Self-Leadership: The Definitive Guide to Personal Excellence – Dr. Christopher P. Neck, Charles C. Manz, and Jeffery D. Houghton (2nd edition, 2019)
This is the most comprehensive and evidence-based book on self-leadership, written by scientific experts on self-leadership in the workplace.
The book starts with an explanation of people’s reciprocal interaction with their environments and emphasizes the role of personal choice to change one’s reality.
Consecutive chapters explain behavioral, cognitive, and natural reward strategies, team self-leadership, the role of health and wellbeing, individual differences, and the phenomenon of the never-ending self-leadership journey.
Available on Amazon.
2. Self-Leadership and the One Minute Manager: Increasing Effectiveness Through Situational Self Leadership – Ken Blanchard, Susan Fowler, and Laurence Hawkins (2005)
This is a business parable written by the founder of The Ken Blanchard® Companies.
It provides specific self-leadership insights aiming to empower the reader to adopt a solution focus.
The book does this by challenging false beliefs about constraints, taking responsibility, being proactive, and activating points of power: position, knowledge, tasks, relationships, and personal power.
Available on Amazon.
Further Reading: PositivePsychology.com’s Resources
The following articles will make great supplemental reading:
- What Is Self-Leadership? Models, Theory, and Examples
- 15 Ways to Find Your Purpose of Life and Realize Your Meaning
- Positive Leadership: 30 Must-Have Traits and Skills
Three special masterclasses can be particularly helpful as additional resources and are highly recommended:
- Our Meaning and Valued Living Masterclass will provide you with the knowledge and tools to identify what is truly important to you.
- Through our Maximizing Strengths Masterclass, you will be able to pinpoint your unique potential, empowering you to attain your desired experiences in a fun, easy, and meaningful way.
- Our Motivation and Goal Achievement Masterclass supports you in articulating actionable goals around your desired experiences and establishing the planning and drive required to make goal attainment inevitable.
A Take-Home Message
Everyone applies self-leadership skills to navigate through life and achieve their goals. How well they do this depends on the maturity of their self-leadership knowledge, skills, and competencies.
If you want to become a stronger self-leader or support someone else to do so, it is best to start by getting to know yourself; familiarizing yourself with the concept, elements, and competencies involved; getting into a habit of frequent self-monitoring; and committing to deliberate practice.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our free PositivePsychology.com Exercises.
If you wish for more, our PositivePsychology.com Toolkit© contains over 350 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- Arista, P. D., & Parahyanti, E. (2018). The use of mastering self-leadership training to improve self-leadership and innovative work behaviour. In A. A. Ariyanto, H. Muluk, P. Newcombe, F. P. Piercy, E. K. Poerwandari, & S. H. R. Suradijono (Eds.), Diversity in unity: Perspectives from psychology and behavioral sciences (1st ed.) (pp. 545–552). CRC Press.
- Blanchard, K., Fowler, S., & Hawkins, L. (2005). Self leadership and the one minute manager: Increasing effectiveness through situational self leadership. William Morrow.
- Boniwell, I. (2012). Positive psychology in a nutshell: The science of happiness. McGraw-Hill Education, Open University Press.
- Kirschenbaum, H. (2013). Values clarification in counseling and psychotherapy practical strategies for individual and group settings. Oxford University Press.
- Linley, A. (2007). Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. CAPP Press.
- Manz, C. C. (1986). Self-leadership: Toward an expanded theory of self-influence processes in organizations. The Academy of Management Review, 11(3), 585–600.
- Neck, C. P., & Houghton, J. D. (2006). Two decades of self‐leadership theory and research: Past developments, present trends, and future possibilities. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21(4), 270–295.
- Neck, C. P., Manz, C. C., & Houghton, J. D. (2019). Self-leadership: The definitive guide to personal excellence (2nd ed.). SAGE Publications.
- Stewart, G. L., Carson, K. P., & Cardy, R. L. (1996). The joint effects of conscientiousness and self-leadership training on employee self-directed behavior in a service setting. Personnel Psychology, 49(1), 143–164.
- Stewart, G. L., Courtright, S. H., & Manz, C. C. (2010). Self-leadership: A multilevel review. Journal of Management, 37(1), 185–222.
- Stewart, G. L., Courtright, S. H., & Manz, C. C. (2019). Self-leadership: A paradoxical core of organizational behavior. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 6(1), 47–67.
- Whitebread, D., & Pino Pasternak, D. (2010). Metacognition, self-regulation & meta-knowing. In K. Littleton, C. Wood, & J. K. Staarman (Eds.), International handbook of psychology in education (pp. 673–711). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.