In a fast-paced, changeable, increasingly autonomous business world, all employees need to be able to lead themselves. Talent leaders must help their employees develop self-leadership skills because individual players who produce quality results, support company values and understand how to lead others will play an essential role in helping organizations outperform their competitors.
However, self-leadership isn’t a well-understood idea, and this is magnified twofold in today’s work environment. One, while current leaders, often baby boomers, are retiring from their positions, there are few next-generation millennials prepared to step into their roles. Two, current leadership teams are unclear about how to lead and manage millennials, let alone create an environment of self-leadership.
The Missing Picture
We live in a visual world. So much so that even when we use words, images pop into our brains. For example, the word nun might conjure an image of a woman dressed in a black and white habit, maybe holding a rosary. Or someone might visualize Julie Andrews singing on top of a mountain. The words senior executive might produce a picture of someone in a pinstriped suit standing in front of a conference table, or sitting behind a desk staring at a computer screen.
When it comes to leadership, people tend to visualize similar images. If asked what comes to mind, most people will respond that they see someone standing in front of others. They describe this leader as charismatic, smart and influential. But self-leadership can be more difficult to visualize. Ask a group what self-leadership looks like and lips may purse in concentration, brows may furrow, and the answers are more fuzzy and varied. Some may say, “Someone achieving their goals,” or “Living your values,” or “It’s about fulfilling one’s potential.”
At its core, self-leadership requires establishing a personal direction and then being motivated and committed enough to travel in that direction all the way to the end.
Think internal and external, as in mental thoughts and physical actions. Mentally, self-leadership techniques involve self-examination and self-dialogue, questioning one’s beliefs and assumptions, and looking at one’s own thought patterns or habits. Physically, self-leadership involves self-observation, self-goal setting, management and if necessary modification of behavior, and discovering rewards in tasks performed.
Learning to Lead Oneself
Sam (not his real name), CEO of an independent distributor of a well-known global brand, recently found himself in conflict with his parent company. He was in jeopardy of losing an $8 million opportunity. Sam owned 22 profitable independent franchise stores when the chance to buy eight more stores presented itself. He stepped forward, only to be told by the parent company that he had been profitable enough. In other words, his reward for excellence and loyalty was a suggestion of greed. Angry, Sam was ready to call up the parent company and let his frustrations be known. He wrote a draft script filled with venom, hurt and aggressive language and then called two close colleagues, business strategists, to verify that he hadn’t left out any juicy details about the parent company’s behavior.
The business strategists listened to the entire draft and then sat back. This conversation was a teachable moment, a moment for self-regulation and introspection. Before Sam’s draft could precipitate additional egregious behavior, they showed him how questioning his assumptions and perspective, framing his messaging, thoughtfully designing the conversation and crafting a few critical questions could positively shift the president’s perspective. Venom, accusations and nasty language were unlikely to move the relationship forward successfully, but clear, candid, thoughtful dialogue might.
Sam left the strategists with a completely different script. This new script positively reviewed his 30-year relationship with the parent company and the win-win scenarios that had been created during that time. It posed thoughtful questions about the actual and unintended consequences of the current decision as well as the potentially lucrative opportunities if they reversed their decision. This revised script held no whining, histrionics, inflammatory language or accusations. Instead, it reflected genuine hurt and concern about the decision, the need for mutual understanding and respect and queried how everyone might create a stronger future relationship.
Twenty-four hours and two conversations with the president later Sam reported not only had the man reversed his original decision, but he shared his regrets about the miscommunication along the way. Instead of Sam losing millions of dollars, and the president losing a 30-year relationship with an ideal distributor, Sam was offered the opportunity to buy eight more stores — a profitable resolution for all concerned.
Without clarity, without pre-planning and self-regulation, without the ability to look at the situation from multiple perspectives, Sam would have made an ineffective and unprofitable move. However, because Sam had colleagues well-versed in self-leadership techniques, they were able to coach him through a challenging and defining moment in his business career.
Five Techniques to Ignite Self-Leadership
1. Inquiry: Self-leadership requires asking oneself better questions. When faced with an opportunity or challenge, begin with, “What should I know to get better business results and an ideal outcome? What am I resisting about this change? What am I attached to? What am I judging? What’s behind my emotional reaction and is this thought true?” Brainstorming a list of questions and then selecting the three to five best ones to answer focuses thought and direction.
Self-leadership is all about internal thoughts and external actions. Stating a goal in the form of a question effectively integrates both. For example, the two worst words one can use in goal setting are “I want.” As soon as the words “I want” are followed by an intended goal, action stops. It is more like wishful thinking than it is executing, getting task oriented and creating an action plan. Flip “I want” to “How might?” or “How will?” and the brain responds. The most effective way to make an action shift is to turn goal-setting statements into how or what questions. For instance, instead of saying “I want to increase sales” or “I want to lose weight,” make the shift to “How will I increase my sales?” or “What can I do to lose one pound this week?” Changing statements into questions can jump-start action planning.
2. Truth: A belief is never changed with logic. We all know crazy psychiatrists, doctors who smoke and flabby fitness instructors. A belief can only be changed with a new belief. Leaders should know what truths, beliefs and assumptions about the way the world works impact their behavior and decision making. It can help to examine one’s own stories and figure out they may help or hinder one’s reputation and effectiveness as a leader. Then a leader can choose to keep only the stories that advance his or her actions that support key stakeholders.
3. Energy: Time management is the equivalent of smoke and mirrors. Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency for high performance. Leaders should know the quantity, quality, focus and force of their energy levels. Quantity is about physical stamina, endurance; it represents the type of energy the individual brings to situations, whether it’s positive — eating well, exercising and getting adequate rest — or negative. Focus is the ability to be mentally agile; and force is the passion and purpose a leader brings to any effort to achieve his or her goals. Cognitive skills are compromised when a leader is in poor health or suffering from exhaustion. High energy, on the other hand, can make an individual more alert, focused, positive and productive. Energy is what makes time more valuable, and it pays to examine what burns it and what refuels it.
4. Align: A misalignment between ethics and moral perspective with colleagues and company can make a leader feel like he or she is rowing across a lake of molasses, whereas ensuring that alignment can help all involved row in the same direction, faster. Misalignment can occur if a leader needs clarity around values or about who has power and influence about choices that impact the person and his or her direct reports. Leaders should determine what their purpose is. What legacy do they want to leave behind? What values are inherent in this legacy, and do their day-to-day decisions and choices match these values? The better the match, the greater the passion, commitment and energy.
5. Action: Knowledge usually equals power, but there are a lot of people who know things, have creative ideas and never act on them. The missing variable in the equation is action. Knowledge plus action equals results. Results will lead to power, or at least domination within a particular market. Leaders must determine how to best act today to move closer to personal, team and company goals. Turn desires or goals into 30-, 60- and 90-day measurable, prioritized objectives. Monitor progress and celebrate the small wins along the way.
Companies that invest in self-leadership development programs and apply these skills to real-world challenges and opportunities reap the rewards of greater retention, higher performers and increased efficiencies. Hidden agendas, silos and interpersonal conflict are all reduced when individuals are more aware of who they are and how they best fulfill their own potential as well as the organization’s. Self-leadership is not about being an island. It’s about knowing how to contribute to the greater good.
Effective self-leadership encourages individuals to find their personal identity and mode of contribution as part of a group or organization. Effective self-leadership integrates an individual’s effort as he or she relates to the organization. When employees are taught how to inquire, build belief systems and ensure energy management, alignment and action, and they are encouraged to effectively practice related techniques, job satisfaction increases, performance improves and cultures become more cooperative and collaborative.
Self-leadership isn’t a secret. It’s about the process a person uses to best influence him or herself to achieve goals and enjoy the journey along the way. And the better someone is at leading him or herself, the better he or she is at leading others.
AmyK Hutchens is the founder of AmyK Inc., an executive leadership development and business consulting firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.