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The What and Why of Self-Leadership

Let’s start this conversation on a provocative note: – Can we identify any individual who has never assumed the role of a self-leader at some point of time in their life to lead some meaningful achievement which is of significance to them personally and or maybe collectively to their environment in which they stayed operational? As a humble journeyman my observation suggests that we all possibly act as self-leaders, maybe somewhat erratically or inconsistently and mostly in our own chosen context.

I recall an incident from a real-life situation: – The school from which I completed my senior secondary education, that year reached out to all its alumni to raise funds for restoration of its heritage and prestigious “Main Building” bloc. On the appointed Sunday, a few hundred of the ex-students gathered in the school assembly hall and the ones willing to donate were requested to raise their hand and to come forward to the podium to pledge the amount that they would like to contribute. During this session, an old and feeble hand went-up and as we looked at the direction, we saw that polite smile and trademark moustache of the retired doorman of the school, “Rambali” who appeared even more older and frail with the passage of time, having served the institution for more than 40 years before retiring.

He wanted to say something and was immediately ushered to the podium. He, with a trembling yet determined voice pledged 25% of his retirement benefit which was his only asset and held in the local bank, generating the post-retiral monthly income towards his humble sustenance. The head of the institution tried to dissuade him, however, he stuck to his decision and maintained that the school is like his mother and it’s a carefully considered decision made with the approval of his family. Rambali, who apparently was one of the most obedient, unremarkable and obscure of personalities suddenly became an inspiration.

Let’s reflect-back now to analyse the above act and the concerned individual through the defined process of Self-leadership as described by Charles Manz & Henry Sims in their widely accepted publication in 1989 where they maintained that self-leading individuals take personal responsibility, direct their own efforts, motivate themselves, and renew their thinking patterns. As I look back today and examine, I found that act of Rambali signified a huge statement for self-leadership and in fact, it was always there with him, unrecognized under the veneer of a polite and obscure persona, committed to his responsibilities with self-motivation and self-efficacy without bothering for any job related fun or excitement which that mundane role scarcely offered.

Self-leadership can be described as the process of “influencing oneself” as opposed to the influence of leaders over followers and we can understand it better by looking at individual responses to their environment and challenges. The actions tell us how self-leaders think and respond in context to their situation and how they keep motivating themselves despite the odds. If we look closely at self-leaders, we will find that they mostly are uniquely capable individuals, interacting and exploring their environment continuously to draw information and motivation and applying them back to their own tasks and challenges to support appropriate behaviour.

Researchers have seen a commonality amongst self-leaders in strategizing their act to operate successfully. They focus on self-awareness and manage their personal behaviour with self-goal setting, self-reward, self-punishment, self-observation, and self-cueing. The researchers found that the self-leaders as a habit engages themselves in optimistic self-talking to influence their own thinking pattern and thereby impacting the outcome expectations positively. They also tend to build pleasant and enjoyable features into their daily activities so that the tasks or the jobs that they manage doesn’t become mundane but get naturally rewarding and enjoyable. This is exactly what we also observed with Rambali as he could create a sense of self-motivation and reward in his apparently routine job of a doorman by assisting specially abled junior students from the school gate to reach their respective classrooms and this, we saw him doing all through his tenure by volition and not by any school mandate.

We all are aware that leadership as a process in its conventional sense (influencing and leading others) is regularly present in our everyday life whether it is economic, political, social or organizational context and this leads us to the obvious question, where does self-leadership fits in this scenario? However, even if we focus this question narrowly and only along the evolving economic context, we may find some interesting answer.

The economic compulsion of today with its mandate on increased productivity and optimization of resources are driving many organizations to cutoff layers of leadership and managerial levels to design flatter and nimble organizations. In the process these organizations are looking for more of self-starting, self-motivating and self-accountable professionals who needs less of managerial input and thrives in empowered environment of greater autonomy to tilt the balance positively and in that context the self-leadership makes an excellent case for itself.

I often remember a very famous quote from Waren Bennis, the leading thinker of our time on leadership process, as he wrote, – “Leadership is a function of knowing yourself”– in fact the process of self-leadership also starts from cultivating and understanding one’s own self. While understanding self is a highly rewarding experience, it’s possibly be better initiated through some organized curriculum and follow-ups. There are useful programs on offer from professional enterprises which uses structured curriculum comprising of appropriate psychometric self-inventory tools, various assessment exercises and support of knowledgeable experts to make connected understanding of observations and their relations to an individual’s internal built. It may be a very good starting point to this meaningful journey.

Reference & acknowledgement:

  • The article draws its theoretical construct from the work of Albert Bandura, Charles Manz, Henry Sims, Martin Seligman, Alan Boss, Chris Neck & Jeffery Houghton who proposed, pioneered and validated various elements of the theory and concept of self-leadership over 3 odd decades of research and observations starting in late 1970’s.
  • The character Rambali is a real-life individual who passed away a few years back having seen his donation and that of many others being successfully used to restore the heritage “Main Building” block of the school he served.

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