CO - HR Innovation

Self-Leadership - The Critical Success Factor

Self-Leadership - The Critical Success Factor

What is the critical factor for any organization, large or small, to achieve success?

Is it a clear vision, a compelling ‘why’, a unique product, or access to financial resources?

These things are important, but are they critical?

Critical Success Factor (CSF) is a management term for an element that is necessary for an organization or project to achieve its mission.

In this article, I am going to expand on a CSF that I have been studying, and teaching about for over 20-years, Self-leadership; and I am going to argue that it is THE Critical Success Factor! I am going to share strategies for you to boost your self-leadership and that of your team.

When I first started speaking and coaching self-leadership, way back in 1999, I thought I had invented the term! It turns out that Charles Manz was the first to use the term self-leadership in 1983. Manz defined self-leadership as; “a comprehensive self-influence perspective that concerns leading oneself". 

In my 2012 book, ‘Self Leadership – How to be a More Successful, Effective, And Efficient Leader from the Inside Out’ with Dr. Ana Kazan, we defined self-leadership as:

“The Practice of intentionally Influencing your thinking, feeling, and actions towards your objectives.”

Peter Drucker (2010) said that being a Self-leader is to serve as chief, captain, or CEO of one's own life. 

Being the Captain

Nelson Mandela, whilst imprisoned on Robben Island, gained inspiration from the poem Invictus, but William Ernest Henley, which ends with:

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

This stoic ownership of one’s ability to weather any hardship or misfortune is clearly a critical success factor in any human endeavor.

With the Covid-19 Pandemic disrupting lives and business in 2020 and with continuing challenges in 2021, I have been coaching and mentoring leaders who have had to reach deep inside themselves to find the strength to accept and own 'a new reality' and to inspire their teams to do the same.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, coined the term, ’The Stockdale Paradox’ after interviewing retired Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale had been the highest-ranking officer imprisoned at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ after being shot down during the American-Vietnam War. Held for over six years and tortured frequently, he concluded that optimism was fatal, as it prevents an acceptance of reality. Instead, to survive you need the courage to face the reality, however brutal, whilst not losing the faith that you will prevail.

This is the crux of self-leadership, the ability to ‘Accept’ the reality of your situation, ‘Adjust’ your thinking and actions accordingly, and ‘Advance’ towards your objectives.



This triple-A approach is, on reflection, an Agile Methodology. It takes agile humans to deliver on agile projects. Self-leadership is, in my opinion, the key to being an agile human.

“Self-leadership is about setting a goal and taking full responsibility for that goal.” – Brian Tracy

The Absence of Self-leadership

Having leaders and teams taking ownership for their actions towards agreed objectives and self-managing their behaviors for changing circumstances, is clearly a desirable culture to have, so, why is it that so many organizations fail to achieve this?

The short answer is regulation and control.

Companies and their consultants try and mitigate risk, and in doing so instigate policies and procedures that reduce ownership and agility. A classic example is how slow companies can be to onboard agile Gig Workers. The whole point of the Gig economy is speedy outsourcing, but regulation and control from HR and Procurement can prevent timely access to these resources.

Principles over Procedures is a good approach to creating a self-leadership culture. Amazon has its fourteen leadership principles and a client of mine, Planful Inc, has created their own. One of these leadership principles is ‘Environment Shaper versus Takers’.

Shapers have bias for action, solve problems fast, take ownership. Over time they amount to a significant and evident impact on their environment (whether that’s a team, an office, a way of working, and so on). Shapers use language like “will” and “can”.

Takers accept the status quo. They are passive, often act like victims, and have trouble taking ownership. They usually have a reputation in the company as a “complainer” or “bringing drama”. Ironically, they are often skilled, but their fixed mindset completely hinders their potential. Takers use language like “should” and “if only”.

I like this definition because it clearly articulates the behaviors and language of ownership and what the absence of self-leadership looks and sounds like.

With Planful Inc, I act as an advisor to the CEO, and as an Executive Coach to his Executive Leadership Team. My mandate is to support them in walking-the-talk of self-leadership and developing self-leadership behaviors within their teams.

With input and support from their head of people, I have written a Management Playbook, so that each manager leads ‘The Planful Way’ and exhibits Environment Shaper, as well as their other six leadership principles. (This book will be published for the public later this year).

Building Self-leadership

All human beings are self-leaders; however, not all self-leaders are effective at self-leading (Manz, 1983). That is the bad news. The good news is that self-leaders can become better at leading themselves. 

Self-leadership is about constantly developing the 'inner game' (mindset) and the ‘outer game’ (action). The inner game consists of Intention, Self-awareness, Self-confidence, and Self-efficacy (self-belief) to achieve Personal Mastery, whilst the outer game consists of influence and impact.

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never “arrive.” - Peter Senge

In this current disruptive age, organizational learning has become the only sustainable advantage. Senge noted the link between self-leadership and organizational learning:

"Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it, no organizational learning occurs."

In 2016, I published a second book on Self-leadership, designed for self-learning the principles. The book contains the following diagram to show the inner and outer game.



Intention
 (having a 'why') precedes any purposeful action (behavior). Actions have impact which the self-leader evaluates via feedback.

Intention is an inner narrative about why achieving an objective is important. Intention is the drive to be a better version of oneself and to make the world a better place as a result.

Whether leading yourself or leading others, it is essential to begin with ‘Why’. Intentional action is like a laser, whilst unintentional action like hitting everything with a hammer.

Self-awareness is about knowing your intentions and values, as well as knowing your personality, what can ‘push your buttons’ and derail you. There are clear correlations between self-awareness and effective leadership, so developing self-awareness must be a constant habit. When coaching your team, transformation occurs, when you increase self-awareness about what drives behaviors, rather than just trying to modify behavior.

Self-confidence comes from knowing your capacity and strengths. As we take action and develop skills, we become more confident. Often people sabotage their confidence by self-judgment and ‘discounting’. Self-leadership is about being grounded and realistic about what you are good at, and what needs improving, this leads to true authenticity and humility (selfleadership blog: false humility will kill your career)

Self-efficacy is the belief that whatever comes our way, we can handle it. We can take the feedback, Accept, Adjust and Advance. With self-efficacy, we can be more creative and innovative.

When our inner game is good, our outer game becomes more efficient and effective through influence and impact.

Influence is the result of intentional action. Through self-awareness and self-confidence, we increase our capacity to Influence. Because we are grounded in ourselves, we can focus on others, and what is best for them. We can therefore positively influence ourselves and the world around us to facilitate change.

Impact is how intention and influence are measured in the world.

Ownership and Problem Solving

I started this article, talking about ownership. Self-leaders take ownership (responsibility) for themselves and their circumstances.

Self-leaders are therefore solution-focused problem solvers.

“Nobody made the world better by saying, it's not my problem’, and no problem got solved by hoping someone else would take responsibility.”

Self-leadership is therefore the critical factor for developing people who can Collaborate, Communicate, be Creative, and use Critical Thinking.

These are the critical capacities for talent now, and for the foreseeable future.

And remember:

“You can’t lead others unless you first lead yourself.”

Andrew Bryant is the founder of Self Leadership International Self leadership international and the world’s leading expert on self-leadership.

  • Andrew Bryant
    Andrew Bryant
    founder of Self Leadership International

    Andrew Bryant is the founder of Self Leadership International www.selfleadership.com and the world’s leading expert on self-leadership. He has written two books on the topic, Self Leadership: How to Become a More Successful, Efficient, and Effective Leader From the Inside Out (Bryant & Kazan, 2012) and Self Leadership: 12 Powerful Mindsets & Methods to Win in Life & Business (Bryant, 2016), and The New Leadership Playbook – Being Human whilst delivering Accelerated Results (Bryant, 2022). He has also contributed to many blogs, books, and articles on self-leadership and leadership. Andrew has coached hundreds of leaders and leadership teams to become the best version of themselves and to scale their companies. He has international experience with clients from Asia, Australasia, the United States of America (USA), Europe, The Middle East, and Africa.

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