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Why everyone should learn the art of self-leadership

(And why it's never too late to start today)

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Entrepreneur and motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, famously said, “Either you run the day, or the day runs you.”

The concept of self-leadership is certainly not new. The term was first coined by Charles C. Manz in the 1980s. Somewhat synonymous with self-mastery, it evolved from the field of professional development and organisational behaviour in the leadership literature. It emerged based on the insight that self-leadership is a prerequisite of team-leadership. While that is certainly true and important for any working professional, self-leadership is a skill that can be applied by anyone and to life more broadly. Anyone with the ambition to live their life intentionally and pursue their dreams can acquire the skills of self-leadership. On the other hand, psychological research has been providing insights into the elements of self-leadership for many more decades. But what are these elements?

I’m sure you can instantly name a few. Willpower, determination, motivation and resilience are often the first buzzwords that come to mind when thinking of striving for success. And sure, they play an important role in self-leadership. But there’s a lot more to it, which may not be as obvious.

Self-leadership is the practice of understanding who you are, identifying your desired experiences and intentionally guiding yourself towards them.

Self-leadership not only starts with an understanding of oneself, but also involves knowing how to orchestrate the many skills necessary for self-leadership. Think of yourself as conductor of a big orchestra. Each musician represents one of the elements of self-leadership: your values, strengths, goals, motivation, willpower, resilience, mindfulness, self-monitoring, self-efficacy, emotional intelligence, cognitive bias, your hopes and dreams, thoughts, emotions and reactions to them, your self-awareness – these are just examples of a long list of self-leadership components. Whenever you have a goal, the likelihood of you achieving it depends on how well you can manage to conduct all the musicians of your orchestra so they can play together harmoniously; so that each musician knows when to play and how to play.

What goals have you pursued before? Any that stand out or come to mind? You may have renovated your house or a piece of furniture, dropped those five pounds, got that job or promotion, spent less time on social media, decreased your carbon footprint, be kinder to yourself or finally called that person. No matter what you’ve set out to achieve before, you would have applied some level of self-leadership. How do you go about picking your goals? Are they quick steps towards feeling pleasure? Or do they involve a number of steps to achieve a bigger life goal? What dreams are you hoping to realise in the future? And how do you go about making it happen? Do you have a formula? The answer to these questions are found in self-leadership.

Mastering self-leadership is important for the same reason that we have goals in the first place: Because we want to have a say in what our life is about.

Sure, we can’t control every detail, but that’s not the point. It’s about taking our life into a direction we feel drawn towards. It’s about pursuing our ambitions and expressing our potential as best as we can. It’s about living our the best possible version. Because as humans, we like to believe that we can exercise free will. That we can reach our goals and make our dreams come true. That we can be happy. Understanding and practising self-leadership gives you the choice to live your life with intention and purpose as much as you can. That is what self-leadership is about. And that is why it’s never too late to start learning the art of self-leadership.

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