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A Quick Guide to Understanding Self-Leadership

A Quick Guide to Understanding Self-Leadership

Since 500 BC, there has been an appreciation for the importance and power of self-leadership. In fact, the philosopher Lao-Tzu famously said, “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”  

Despite the longevity of this concept, misconceptions and misunderstandings persist regarding what self-leadership is, why it is essential, what its characteristics are, and how one can develop it. This quick guide is here to clear all of that up.

What is Self-Leadership?

Self-leadership, as the name suggests, is one’s ability to lead themselves and control how one behaves, takes action, and owns their accountabilities. It involves the practices of self-management and self-motivation to do what is needed to achieve professional goals without the intervention of a leader or boss pushing to do so.

Self-Leadership Definition  Niagara Institute (1)

Charles C. Manz first published the concept of self-leadership in his article Improving Performance Through Self-leadership in 1983. Since then, the idea has evolved and been explored by many thought leaders in organizational leadership as a critical component needed for success.


Manage your time, productivity, and results better with the Self-Management  Workbook.


Why is Self-Leadership Important?

Managing your behaviors, reactions, actions, and motivation empowers you to take control and achieve goals, increasing your value to your organization to propel you toward your career aspirations. Self-leadership is an important skill to continually nurture and grow as it directly impacts professional growth, making sound decisions, and the ability to bounce back from setbacks.

In 2021, McKinsey conducted a research study of over 18,000 people across 15 countries, exploring the most important skills needed for the future world of work. The study pinpointed 56 foundational skills broken down into four categories, one of which was self-leadership.


What Are The 3 Pillars of Self-Leadership?

In McKinsey’s article, which explored the skills needed for the future of work, they shared three pillars of self-leadership with 15 characteristics that make it up. Here is a list of the pillars and skills you’ll want to develop to be exceptional at self-leadership.

3 Pillars of Self-Leadership 


Self-Awareness and Self-Management

It likely comes as no surprise that being self-aware and able to manage your behaviors is a crucial pillar of self-leadership. Here are some of the key self-leadership characteristics for self-awareness and self-management:

  • Understanding your emotions and reactions
  • Self-control
  • Understanding your strengths
  • Integrity
  • Self-motivation
  • Self-confidence

Understanding Your Emotions and Reactions
Having the ability to control your emotions and how you react to certain situations, otherwise known as emotional intelligence, is an invaluable skill. This characteristic allows you to navigate work relationships better, collaborate effectively, and manage conflicts with peers.


When you have self-control at work, it promotes professionalism as you’re not reacting poorly to stressors, helps you make the right decisions, and keeps you focused and productive on the things that matter.


Understanding Your Strengths
Gallup uncovered that people who understand their strengths and play to them not only achieve the highest level of success when they apply and develop them, but they also found these individuals are three times more likely to say they have an excellent quality of life - all the reason to learn and nurture this characteristic of self-leadership.


Integrity, that is, aligning your actions and behaviors with your values, beliefs, and principles, is foundational to self-leadership. Integrity is your guiding compass for ethical decision-making, building trusting relationships, personal accountability, and authentic leadership.


Being able to motivate yourself without someone having to push or reward you is beneficial to yourself, your leader, and the organization you work for. Those with self-motivation have an internal drive that forces them to get going and do the work needed to achieve professional success.

Self-confidence is a necessary component of self-leadership, as you must be sure of yourself to make decisions, tackle problems, and believe in yourself that you can achieve ambitious goals.



Having the characteristics of an entrepreneur or within a company, the qualities of an intrapreneur, are a pillar of self-leadership. Those with these characteristics look at the world around them differently. They believe there is a better way and dare to make a change. They continually seek out opportunities to innovate and do so by challenging beliefs and assumptions at work. Here are some of the key self-leadership characteristics for entrepreneurship: 

  • Courage to take risks
  • Initiating change and innovation
  • Consistent energy, passion, and a positive attitude
  • Challenge assumptions


Courage to take risks, challenge assumptions, and initiate change
We’ve bundled together these three characteristics of self-leadership as you can’t have one without the others. Being able to look at the world around you to see ways to initiate change and innovation through challenging the narrative “that’s the way we’ve always done it” takes the courage to speak up and take a risk that may not work out.


Consistent energy, passion, and a positive attitude
Life at work won’t always be easy, and there will be times when you want to give up; that’s why possessing the self-leadership characteristics of energy, passion, and a positive attitude is critical. It’s these characteristics that push you forward when challenges arise to ensure you keep going on your way to achieving your goals.


Goals Achievement

Setting and pursuing goals is an integral part of self-leadership because, with it, you gain clarity of where you’re going, the accountability to achieve it, and the desire to grow personally to make your goals a reality. It also pushes you to take control of your development, drive your progress, and clearly define the roadmap you’ll follow to achieve success. Here are some of the key self-leadership characteristics for goal achievement: 

  • Accountability
  • Achievement-focused
  • Resilience
  • Embracing VUCA
  • Self-Development 


Accountability, that is, the acceptance, good or bad, of your personal actions that contribute to attaining or failing to meet an intended goal, is a critical factor in one’s ability to have self-leadership, as it is, in essence, the drive to ensure your responsibilities are met, regardless of the roadblocks faced.


As goals act as the driving force for those with self-leadership, having the quality of achievement-focused is no surprise it is on the list. It is the hunger to achieve that drives motivation, resilience, accountability, and self-discipline.


Resilience, a needed component of goal achievement and self-leadership, is being able to bounce back from setbacks, keep going when it seems like everything is going wrong, and draw upon your underlying motivation to keep pursuing what you’ve set out to achieve.


Embracing VUCA
We’re living in a time of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) with political unrest, the velocity of technological advances being unparalleled, and the nature of work rapidly evolving. Those with self-leadership are able to see the environment they’re in for what it is, and instead of fearing it, they embrace it.


Having a growth mindset is the belief that you can learn new things and value self-development. As noted in embracing VUCA, we’re living through a time of rapid change requiring constant upskilling to keep pace, making self-development a needed quality of self-leadership.

How Can You Develop Self-Leadership?

If you don’t feel you have all the characteristics of self-leadership, don’t fret; like any skill, self-leadership can be learned and honed by attending a program and/or working with a professional coach. By investing in yourself, you’re taking steps in the right direction to be an individual who possesses self-leadership and is on the fast track to achieving your career ambitions. 

The Self-Management Workbook for Ambitious Professionals

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