How to Cultivate Self-Leadership to Master Your Behavior and Realize Your Leadership Potential

by Scott Jeffrey

Leadership is a popular topic in business.

There are tens of thousands of books offering advice on how to become a better leader.

But, as psychologist Daniel Goleman points out in his bestseller Emotional Intelligence,

“Exceptional leaders distinguish themselves because of superior self-leadership.”

Yet self-leadership isn’t a popular topic.

It’s understandable why: Self-leadership is far more challenging.

Although we exert great effort to keep things together, if we’re honest, we’re all a little bit out of control.

What is Self Leadership?

While leadership focuses on how one influences others, self leadership is about observing and managing oneself.

Self leadership is similar to mature adulthood. Research in developmental psychology shows that mature adulthood is rare.

According to developmental psychologist Susanne Cook-Greuter, less than three percent of people reach mature adulthood. (Yes, less than 3!)

Prior to mature adulthood, we project authority onto other people, groups, and institutions. We look to these sources to determine our beliefs and establish moral codes of conduct.

With mature adulthood, we stop placing authority in others. We become responsible for all our actions and behaviors.

Self-leadership requires qualities like self-awareness, self-honesty, self-knowledge, and self-discipline. (We’ll discuss these conditions and others below.)

Many of us try to drive ourselves forward with self-criticism; this is not self leadership.

Can a successful leader use criticism and judgment to influence another person in a positive direction?

Self leadership means guiding yourself with gentleness, humility, and compassion throughout your daily existence.

What is the “Self” in Self-Leadership?

It’s easy to incorrectly assume what the “self” in self-leadership represents.

“Self,” in this context, doesn’t just mean “you” or “me.” Our true Self (capital “S”) is the organizing principle within our psyches. This Self already possesses all the qualities we seek to develop or integrate to become a mature adult.

Jay Earley, psychologist and author of Self-Therapy explains:

We all have a core part of us that is our true Self, our spiritual center. When our extreme parts are not activated and in the way, this is who we are. The Self is relaxed, open, and accepting of yourself and others. When you are in Self, you are grounded, centered, and non-reactive. You don’t get triggered by what people do. You remain calm and unruffled, even in difficult circumstances …

When you are in Self, you come from a depth of compassion, enabling you to be loving and caring toward others as well as yourself and your parts. The Self is like the sun—it just shines.

Earley highlights the qualities of Self discussed in both Western integrative therapies and Eastern spiritual traditions: connected, curious, compassionate, calm, centered, and grounded.

The goal of self-leadership is to navigate through our various parts, tendencies, and conditioning so our Self can shine forth.

Why is True Self Leadership So Rare?

There are several ways we can answer this question, but three reasons are most relevant for our purposes here.

First, our culture doesn’t support or encourage self leadership or mature psychological development.

Collectively, we value wealth and materiality over development and positive well-being.

As best-selling author and researcher Jim Collins points out, “Our problem lies in the fact that our culture has fallen in love with the idea of the celebrity CEO.”

While we marvel at their business achievements, these individuals are egocentric individuals with low levels of psychological development.

Without role models for self-leadership, we model our behavior after what our culture values.

Second, self-leadership doesn’t happen by accident. It takes effort, requiring daily practice and attention to make progress.

When the culture’s dominant value is on making money, it’s difficult for self-leadership to become a topic of consideration.

Third, overall, we have a low level of what’s called emotional intelligence. Let’s discuss what this means right now.

Five Characteristics of Emotional Intelligence

In his article in Harvard Business Review titled, “What Makes a Leader,” Daniel Goleman highlights five characteristics of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

emotional intelligence

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the foundation for both emotional intelligence and self-leadership.

All the other characteristics of emotional intelligence hinge on this one. Our capacity for self-awareness determines our self-leadership potential.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand our moods, emotions, drives, and how they all affect others.

With self-awareness, you can observe when a situation, thought, or person triggers you. You can provide a realistic self-assessment of your current emotional state and the drivers behind your behavior.

Seriousness or a rigid view of oneself blocks an accurate self-assessment.

Goleman finds those with greater self-awareness have a self-deprecating sense of humor. To see yourself clearly—including the often irrational reactions you have in situations—requires light-heartedness.

Self-awareness is a vital skill. We’ll discuss ways of developing this skill below.

Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods; to think before acting.

Those who can regulate their emotions have greater integrity, which makes them trustworthy.

But self-regulation doesn’t mean repressing your impulses; it means being flexible, open to change, and comfortable with ambiguity.

Internal Motivation

Motivation is the ability to work for reasons beyond money or status; to pursue goals with energy and persistence.

Abraham Maslow invested much of his career studying internal motivation.

He found that most people focus on meeting their basic human needs like physiological, security, belonging, and self-esteem needs. External motivations drive all of these basic needs (for example, material possessions and what other people think).

Self-actualizing people, in contrast, are internally motivated. They show a commitment to actualizing their potentials, capacities, and talents. Self-actualizing individuals often feel a sense of mission, calling, or destiny.

Internally-driven people are optimistic, even in the face of failure.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people and to treat others in accord with their emotional reactions.

This quality requires a close connection to one’s feelings.

We can only understand the emotional reactions of others by knowing our reactions and triggers. We all come hard-wired with the same emotions.

The more we’re able to feel and understand our emotional landscape (including negative emotions), the larger our capacity for empathy for others.

Social Skill

Social skill is the ability to find common ground, build rapport, manage relationships and foster networks.

With social skill, a person can influence and persuade others, lead them toward change, and foster high-performing teams.

As in all other lines of intelligence, we can learn, develop, and grow our emotional intelligence. (See below.)

Ten Qualities of Self-Leadership

Certain characteristics support emotional intelligence and self-leadership.

Curiosity

We start out as a mystery to ourselves. Layers upon layers of conditioned programming, beliefs, biases, and self-identities create a false image of ourselves (ego). We are none of these things. Curiosity helps us inquire into our true nature.

Self-honesty

Self-honesty, also called integrity, is much easier to talk (and write) about than to practice. To peel away the layers that block the Self requires honesty. It takes integrity to observe our behavior and our underlying motivations without filters or judgment.

Accountability

Being responsible for our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and actions is a hallmark quality of mature adulthood. The ego has an unlimited ability for self-deception. Without accountability, no growth can occur.

Self-discipline

We need vigilance and self-discipline to manage our mental and emotional state. A strong personal will is one of the two qualities Jim Collins identified in outperforming leaders.

Humility

As our emotional intelligence grows, we become conscious of the tensions, oppositions, and ambiguity within us. Observing these tensions breeds humility. We don’t know the answers. We aren’t in control. Humility is the other quality Collins highlights in his Level 5 leadership.

self leadership

Courage

Most of us are conditioned since childhood to “be good.” Much of what we express in our thoughts, emotions, and behavior, however, is far from good. It takes courage to face our shadow and become conscious of our shortcomings and limitations.

Self-compassion

Self-compassion is a necessary ingredient for long-term, healthy development. Most of us approach change with self-criticism, which ensures we never change. When we have compassion for ourselves, we can learn about ourselves with understanding, kindness, and self-acceptance.

Assertiveness

In between aggressiveness and passivity is assertiveness. Unconsciously, we often behave either as bullies (aggressive) or weaklings (passive). Neither of these behavioral patterns supports self-leadership. When we’re assertive, we stand up for ourselves without going to either extreme.

Willingness

Acknowledging our resistance to growth is difficult. In the face of our resistance to change, we need the willingness to sit with discomfort, to adapt to feedback (internal and external), and to let go of wanting control.

Inner Faith

With self-leadership, we’re placing authority within ourselves instead of putting it in another person or institution. This transition requires us to trust our Inner Guide and have faith it will direction us in a supportive way.

Tools for Self-Leadership

Here are three resources to give you more clarity and increase your self-knowledge.

Discover Your Personal Values

We don’t create our personal values; we discover them.

Our values are like signposts that guide our behaviors, actions, and decisions. Knowing our values is part of building awareness and understanding our motivations.

See: 7 Steps to Discover Your Core Values

Clarify Your Personal Vision

Great leaders hold a vision that guides their team toward a compelling future. For self-leadership, it helps to have a general map of where we’re going.

For self-leadership, it also helps to have a general map of where we’re going. What does your future self look like?

See: How to Craft an Inspiring Personal Vision Statement

Identify Your Strengths and Weakness

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is important for self-leadership.

Over time, we discover these strengths and weaknesses through self-awareness and honest reflection. But external assessments can be helpful too.

See: How to Increase Your Authentic Happiness (includes a list of Seligman’s 24 signature strengths.)

How to Strengthen Self-Leadership

Our level of self-leadership (and leadership ability in general) doesn’t change or develop without deliberate practice.

Since self-awareness is the foundation for self-leadership, focusing on developing this quality is essential.

The first thing we need to do to build self-awareness is slow down. I realize that’s not so easy.

We’ve become wired to technology, staring at screens for 12 hours each day. Our autonomic nervous system is out of balance. We have too much adrenaline coursing through our veins. We don’t realize our condition because we’ve always been this way.

How does Google train the brightest people in the world to be better leaders? They teach them how to prepare their minds—how to slow down and observe what’s happening within them.

Google even started a separate business called Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute to train other organizations on how to develop nonjudgmental awareness in executives.

See: A Comprehensive Guide to Cultivating Self-Awareness

Awareness-Building Practices for Self Leadership

Many practices can help us increase our awareness. It’s helpful to break these exercises into two categories: body and mind.

Part 1: Body Awareness Practices

The first key is to bring our awareness into our body. The more connected we are to our body, the more self-awareness we can develop.

These previous guides provide specific methods designed to get you rooted in your body:

How to Breathe Like a Jedi to Improve Mental Clarity, Energy, Emotional Resilience, and Productivity

15 Powerful Centering Methods to Reduce Stress, Increase Focus, and Make Better Decisions

9 Powerful Grounding Techniques to Achieve Instant Calm and Regain Your Center

Cultivate Boundless Energy With an Ancient Chinese Internal Martial Art Called Zhan Zhuang

These proven practices help you integrate your body and mind into a unified organism.

Part 2: Mind Awareness Practices

Mind awareness practices come down to one form of meditation or another.

See:

The Definitive “Underground” Meditation Guide: Secrets to Effective Mind Training

7 Powerful Meditation Tools to Help You Train Your Mind

Part 3: Psychological Awareness Practices

Getting rooted and centered in our body sets the foundation for the second part of self-leadership.

Now, we need to enter a dialogue with the various parts or voices within our psyche.

Shadow Work

The shadow is all the parts of ourselves that we cut off from our awareness in the course of our development.

The primary reason people fail to develop self-leadership abilities is they remain unconscious to their shadow.

To realize mature adulthood, one must meet, own, and integrate one’s disowned parts.

See: A Complete Guide to Shadow Work

Inner Dialogue

Within our psyches is a pantheon of characters, subpersonalities, or parts that are influencing our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Getting to know and working with these parts help clear a path to the higher Self.

One method is active journaling where you write out a dialogue (like a screenplay) between you and one or more of your parts from your imagination.

See: A Guide to Understanding Your Psychology through Archetypes

Recap: The Path of Self Leadership

Self leadership is the process of observing and managing one’s thoughts, emotions, actions, and behaviors.

Self leadership grows as we develop into mature adulthood. This process is rarer than we might think.

Developing self leadership takes effort. We must grow our emotional intelligence.

The key to emotional intelligence is developing self-awareness. Self-awareness allows you to monitor your behavior.

Self-monitoring provides internal feedback that enables you to adjust and make corrections as necessary.

The practices and resources in this guide will help you build self-awareness.

Reading List

Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace)
by Chade-Meng Tan

Paperback | Kindle | Audio

Chade-Meng Tan was one of the first engineers at Google. Years later, he helped launch the Search Inside Yourself Institute, a leadership program within Google. The program is a synthesis of the work of psychologists Jon Kabat-Zinn and Daniel Goleman, neuroscientist Richard Davidson, and others.

At its core, Search Inside Yourself is a mind training program in emotional intelligence, the critical factor in outperforming leadership. Not only is this book an accessible, practical introduction to emotional intelligence with clear practices and methods, it’s also an excellent summary of dozens of other great personal development books rolled into one.


Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ
by Daniel Goleman

Paperback | Kindle | Audio

The reason Goleman’s book is still relevant over 20 years after becoming a bestseller is that no matter how many times we’re told that there are different kinds of intelligence, most people still equate “intelligence” with IQ and cognition.

But 20 years of research, especially in the business sector, has revealed that it’s emotional intelligence, not cognitive intelligence, that defines high performance and lasting success in business and life.

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