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Practicing Self-Leadership

A young woman standing overlooking a large city

Leadership expert John Maxwell says that “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” So it follows that self-leadership is the process of influencing oneself.

If you are not the one in charge of leading and influencing yourself, you’ll be swayed by the next idea that comes along and the priorities of everyone else around you. If you want to grow and improve yourself, you must practice self-leadership.

When I was doing my MBA, one of the most useful books I had to read was Mastering Self-Leadership by Christopher P. Neck and Charles Manz. They split tactics for self-leadership into “World-Altering Strategies” and “Self-Imposed Strategies.”

Below, I’ll go into detail on how these strategies can help you improve your self-leadership.

World-Altering Strategies

World-altering strategies focus on the physical world around you and how you can arrange it to best serve your needs. Remember, self-leadership is all about mastering yourself instead of letting yourself be influenced by the people and environment around you. You can shape a space for yourself that brings improvement and promotes healthy habits.

Reminders & Attention Focusers

A very simple way to help create good habits or ensure you’re making progress toward your goals is to set up reminders and attention focusers. There is so much constantly competing for our attention that it’s easy to get side-tracked or forget what you need to do. These tips can help avoid that.

-Physical objects like a gem, coins, etc. Using a physical object like a gem, stone, or coin, can help you keep track of how you’re doing on your goals for the day. For example, if you want to call three prospective clients during the day, you can set a coin in front of you for each call you make to help visualize the progress you’ve made. Or you may have 5 main tasks to complete for the day and move a stone from the left side of the desk to the right as you check them off.

-List of prioritized tasks

A classic way to help focus your attention for the day is to have a list of prioritized tasks. You may create this the night before or first thing in the morning. I recommend using Stephen R. Covey’s 4 Quadrant Method outlined in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to help you learn how to effectively prioritize. Just be careful not to make the list too long - too many tasks is unrealistic and will overwhelm you.

-Alarms on your phone

Is there a task you really dread even though it will make a big improvement in your life? Maybe you struggle to convince yourself to exercise or have a hard time remembering to take breaks from your computer. Setting an alarm on your phone is a bold physical reminder to do those tasks you may want to avoid!

Removing Negative Cues

Removing negative cues from your world will help you avoid any bad habits that you want to break. This includes:

  • Minimize temptations by physically removing the temptation (junk food, your phone, etc.)

  • Remove distracting objects

  • Move yourself (have a dedicate space for work, for meditation, etc.)

Increasing Positive Cues

Along with removing negative cues, you also need to create positive cues to serve as reminders and encouragement throughout the day.

Strategically place objects as reminders, such as setting vitamins out on the counter or a book on your bedside table.

Choose the right people to hang out with. The people you surround yourself with can influence you more than you realize, so choose people who are a positive influence and have the same ideals as you.

Focus your thinking by having a visual encouragement like a vision board, quotes, or posters to keep you going throughout the day.

For more help with positive and negative cues, I highly recommend reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. His book goes into great detail about how we can create good habits and break the bad ones - and keep them up long-term.

Self-Imposed Strategies

In addition to strategies that involve changing the physical space around you, there are also self-imposed strategies that are focused more on your thoughts and actions.


Before you can begin to improve yourself, you first need to understand your strengths and weaknesses. You need to discern what behaviors happen, why they occur, and when they occur.

For example, if you find that you procrastinate (what) every time a budget report is due (when) because you’re anxious about making a mistake (why), you can start to take steps to manage the problem.

Self-Goal Setting

Once you’ve observed yourself for a while and have an understanding of where you need to improve, you can start setting goals. You could read a whole book about how to set goals, but for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll keep it simple.

  • Know your purpose - Before you can set a goal, you need to know why you are setting that goal. Understanding your purpose in life can help you set goals to match that purpose.

  • Long & short term goals - Set goals for the long and short term. Plan goals for the month, for the year, and for the next 5-10 years. These different goals will help you fulfill your purpose over time.

  • Make it SMART - Use the SMART framework to help you set attainable and effective goals. Make it Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. For more details on setting goals, check out this blog post.


To help keep yourself motivated to continue working toward your goals and creating good habits, it’s important to reward yourself.

First, identify what motivates you. A spa day might be a great reward for you, but a new book might be the perfect reward for a friend. Everyone has different motivators, so find what works for you.

Determine the behaviors you want to reward. You can’t reward yourself for every little thing, but it also can’t be too infrequent. Pick the behaviors that will be most beneficial or that you most want to encourage.

Pick and plan the reward ahead of time so you can look forward to it. That will also help keep you from getting too wild when it comes to picking a reward!


By self-punishment, I mean the feelings of guilt and failure. Beating yourself up for making a mistake or not reaching your goals does not help.

  • Identify what creates self-critical feelings - Certain behaviors or situations tend to create the same reaction in us. Evaluate what causes the self-critical feelings so you can prepare to handle them in a more positive way.

  • Reduce or eliminate destruction tendencies - Once you’ve identified the situations that cause your self-critical feelings, you can work to reduce those negative reactions. Get rid of the guilt!

  • Remove rewards that encourage negative behaviors - It’s easy to fall into the trap of comforting yourself when something goes wrong or you make a mistake. We’ve all eaten a big bowl of ice cream after a rough day or bought something we shouldn’t have as a “treat” when we made a mistake. But this is actually encouraging those negative behaviors by rewarding them.


Finally, practice makes perfect! No one becomes magically proficient at self-leadership over night, so practice, practice, practice.

You don’t have time to practice everything, so prioritize what’s most important and needs practice. Identify your upcoming challenges and focus your energy on practicing for that.

Many times, you will need to physically practice a skill. For example, if you have a presentation coming up, take the time to physically practice the presentation to get the timing down, ensure technology is set up correctly, etc.

In addition to physically practicing, you also need to mentally practice. Back to the example of giving a presentation, go over it in your head as part of your preparation as well. Thinking through what you want to say can be a big help. And you’ll be less nervous if you’ve already done it in your mind first.

There are many ways you can start to practice self-leadership. I recommend creating an action plan by choosing two things discussed above to work on. When you’ve decided, share in the comments what aspect of self-leadership you’ve chosen!

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