What is self-leadership? And why aren’t we talking about it more often?

Self-leadership has been a focus of research for nearly 40 years.

Charles C. Manz coined the term in his 1983 key paper “How to improve performance through self-leadership”. The catalyst for this thought piece was the need for a management approach that would impact employees’ willingness and ability to complete work tasks, no matter how unappealing or difficult.

The simplest self-leadership definition Manz offered was that it is the process of influencing oneself. However, what he meant was more than just exercising self-control, self-regulation or self-management. The difference between those practices and self-leadership is the additional self-determination of goals, or self-goalsetting. If we set our own goals and intentionally guide ourselves towards them, we lead ourselves.

What Manz and his colleagues laid was a great conceptualisation of a new framework to manifest your heart’s desires in a scientific way. Most of the research around self-leadership has been published in managerial, business leadership, and organisational psychology literature.

And for some reason, it has remained there since - and seems to have lost its momentum. In my (humble and possibly slightly biased) opinion, self-leadership is key to happiness and success and should be one of the most fundamental skills we should learn at school. Yet we hardly ever use the word in our everyday vocabulary.

Why is that?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure myself. But if you are, I would love it if you got in touch with me for a chat. However, having studied and researched behaviour change science and positive psychology for nearly two decades now, I have some ideas.

1. The framework lacks clarity

As described above, self-leadership has been conceptualised as self-goalsetting in combination with self-regulation. In order to explain that in more detail, the self-leadership researchers have focused on underlying strategies across these two constructs. These are behaviour-focused strategies, natural reward strategies, and cognitive strategies.

Behaviour-focused strategies include self-observation, self-goalsetting practices, self-reinforcement, and self-criticism. Natural reward strategies refer to the practice of identifying and utilising natural rewards to reinforce desired behaviours. And, cognitive strategies include intentional self-talk, mental rehearsal, and awareness of limiting beliefs and assumptions. [More recently, Manz added three additional constructs that are characteristic for ‘high-level’ self-leadership: authenticity, responsibility, and expanded capacity. However, for now, let’s focus on the simpler model.]

Some of these assumptions do not make sense to me. For example, self-observation and self-criticism are labeled as a behaviour, while self-talk is labeled as a cognitive strategy.

Some of these strategies have been renamed by some researchers in the field without agreement by others. For example, in 2012, Houghton, Dawley and DiLiello, referred to the three strategy types as 1. behaviour awareness & volition, 2. task motivation, and 3. constructive cognition. Based on their research, they assigned some of the strategies to other strategy types. However, this has not been acknowledged in more recent papers by others.

It seems that some of these concepts have been identified as suitable based on a slightly arbitrary, common-sense approach, rather than rigorous psychological science, which brings me to my next point.

2. The framework lacks critical cross-disciplinary input

While self-leadership researchers thus far have acknowledged the relevance of some fundamental psychological theories for the self-leadership concept, its origins as well as the expertise of the majority of relevant scientists to date are rooted in business and management. This is evident across elements of the current framework.

For example, while researchers have acknowledged the vital role of self-determination theory, they only focus on natural reward strategies rather than additionally targeting the concepts of autonomy, competence, and relatedness (i.e. the 3 key elements of self-determination theory).

Yet, self-leadership is a framework for the identification and achievement of personal success - in other words, human flourishing. That means that it should be informed at least equally by psychological science - in particular, positive psychology, the subdiscipline of psychological science examining human flourishing.

For example, research shows that we perform best and are most motivated when we play to our own strengths. However, personal strengths are not a consideration of the current framework, which is a great segue to argument number 3.

3. The framework lacks a major component

The way self-leadership has been defined thus far, explains the fact that it enables individuals to create self-determined change. However, in order to create meaningful change, goals must be based on our values and in a way that we can realise them using our strengths. Furthermore, intrinsic motivation and optimal performance, such as through flow, is based on natural interests. That means the fundament of self-leadership must be self-knowledge.

Self-leadership = Self-knowledge + Self-goalsetting + Self-regulation. Much better.

4. The framework has a major flaw

If you jumped at the notion of 'self-criticism' as a self-leadership strategy, you certainly had reason to. Research shows that we have a tendency to be overcritical with ourselves already, yet when it comes to listing our strengths and positive sides, we struggle. While we should cultivate a healthy amount of self-monitoring and correct our behaviour if it is contrary to our intention, self-criticism will do more harm than good.

In fact, most of us could probably do with a little more self-compassion instead. Studies show that, contrary to the popular belief that self-compassion leads to complacement, it actually does the exact opposite and boost our productivity instead.

So, despite almost four decades of self-leadership research, it is probably fair to say that the research around it is still somewhat limited and not very practical to translate into an every-day approach asI think it could or should be. However, I am determined to change that and make the concept as user-friendly as possible while being as evidence-informed as can be.

Stay tuned for more.

Maike x

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