Self leadership

What is self- leadership?

The concept of self-leadership is about how we influence ourselves to perform more effectively. As a concept it has been around since the 1980s (Houghton 2012).

Self-leadership is useful as a concept as it offers specific strategies and normative prescriptions designed to enhance individual performance. It has both behavioural and cognitive dimensions (Houghton 2012).

Self-leadership has a strong relationship with the concept of emotional intelligence (Alabdulbaqi 2019, Baker, 2018). Both focus extensively on self reflection, self control, self regulation, and intrinsic motivation.

Emotional intelligence goes further than self leadership in that it also considers the capacity to understand and influence others.  A number of academics and writers – Mayer and Salovey, Goleman, Weissinger and Barley, Salter and Kelloway – agree that emotional intelligence has five core characteristics: self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills (Baker, 2018 p19).

In 1998 Daniel Goleman defined emotional intelligence as “the capacity for recognizing our feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships” (Goleman, 1998 p317).

A number of studies described in a literature review by Baker (2018) shows a relationship between higher emotional intelligence and enhanced leadership capability (pp 18 -20)

What is the relevance of self leadership?

Too often leadership is associated with people in roles of authority. However, leadership more broadly considered, exists in many places where we seek to influence others in some way. We can, and do, lead in our families, our communities and our workplaces regardless of whether we hold an authoritative role or title.

To lead others well we need to first lead ourselves.   To lead ourselves effectively it’s important we have a developed sense of who we are and what we can do. We also need to consciously manage our emotions, behaviour and communication (Browning 2018). In essence it is about knowing and managing ourselves better.

Most of us try in various ways to influence others. Our success is to some degree dependent on our credibility with the person (s) we wish to influence.  If we have poor credibility – for whatever reason – the other person will be less open to our influence. We usually appear more credible when we are grounded, realistic and authentic. These qualities are more likely to be present when we know and appreciate ourselves and are able to honestly appraise ourselves.

Sometimes overlooked as a factor when we seek to influence is the capability to listen first. Too often we just try to “sell” our ideas to others without first taking the time to consider their interests and needs. Unfortunately for many of us who want others to ‘buy’ our ideas, people are not empty vessels waiting for us to arrive with our messages and content. Others have their own ideas, beliefs, values and assumptions so to influence we need to take time initially to work out where others are coming from and this involves listening first with a level of curiosity and tolerance.  We are much more likely to listen to others if we have self leadership mastery.

Research has shown self leadership has a number of positive outcomes such as increased productivity and job satisfaction for employees, greater career success and reduced stress and anxiety (Stewart, Courtright and Manz (2011 p193).

However, Bäcklande, Rosengren and Kaulio (2018) in a study of Danish management consultants found there was a gap between how the consultants believed their self leadership ought to work and what they actually did in practice. The study suggested that there is a risk for knowledge workers of burnout as their high levels of intrinsic motivation can lead to over reliance on self control and discipline to deliver work that is complex and under designed in nature.

Self leadership has special relevance now (April 2020) as the times that challenge us the most provide an opportunity to learn more about ourselves. However, it takes considerable courage to be open to exploring ourselves when we feel unsettled, threatened and vulnerable. In these times we are more likely to retreat to what seems safe and predictable (even if it is not).

An important part of self leadership is realistic self appraisal. This involves understanding our strengths and weaknesses and being okay with who we are and what we bring to ‘the table”. However, many of us struggle with this.

Why it is hard to realistically appraise ourselves?

Can self leadership be measured?

A widely recognised questionnaire for measuring self leadership is the Abbreviated Self-Leadership Questionnaire (ASLQ) (Houghton, Dawley and Diello, 2012). This questionnaire revised an earlier questionnaire develop in 2002. The questionnaire covers three dimensions: behaviour awareness and volition, task motivation and constructive cognition.  Behaviour awareness and volition is about our ability to set and track personal goals. Task motivation is about the strategies we use to motivate ourselves to complete tasks, for example, knowing what successful accomplishment looks like before we start.  Constructive cognition involves our awareness of our mindset as well the ways we manage our thoughts and self talk.

The nine items on the ASLQ could potentially be divided into sub strategies though this is not the focus of any study. For example, item 5 on the ASLQ is “Sometimes I picture in my mind a successful performance before I actually do a task”. There are a number of ways to refine visualisation of success that can be taught to people to improve their capacity to use it.

Self leadership is useful as a concept in the leadership field because of its potential to provide specific strategies that enable individuals to reflect, test and self coach for performance improvement.


Alabdulbaqi, E (2019) The Relationship between Self-Leadership and Emotional Intelligence among Staff Nurses, IOSR Journal of Nursing and Health Science, vol. 8, no. 01 pp. 58-65.

Bäcklander G, Rosengren C, Kaulio M. (2018). Managing intensity in knowledge work: Self-leadership practices among Danish management consultants. Journal of Management & Organization X: 1–19.

Baker, C (2018). A Study of Emotional Intelligence and Self Leadership. SAM Advanced Management Journal 82. pp18-28

Browning, M ( 2018)  Self-Leadership: Why It Matters International Journal of Business and Social Science Volume 9,  Number 2

Goleman D. (1998) Working with emotional intelligence. New York, NY: New York: Bantam Books

Houghton, J.D, Dawley DiLiello T.C. (2012) The Abbreviated Self-Leadership Questionnaire (ASLQ): A More Concise Measure of Self-Leadership. International Journal of Leadership Studies, Volume 7 Issue 2.

Stewart, G.L, Courtright, S.H and Manz, C.C, Self-Leadership: A Multilevel Review Journal of Management 37: 185-222