One of the primary aims of self-leadership is to achieve higher performance and effectiveness through behavioral and cognitive strategies that individuals use to influence themselves. It is a comprehensive view of self-influence that considers behavior to be a result of factors both internal and external to the individual.
Considered to be an advanced form of the self-influence process, self-leadership reflects three important premises. First, leadership is considered as an ongoing dynamic. Second, what an individual thinks and does is not without consequences. Third, all individuals have the ability to, and do, exercise leadership, at least over themselves, although they may not be skillful in their self-leadership practices at a given point in time.
Self-leadership theory is grounded on two main areas of psychology. First, social cognitive theory explains human behavior in terms of the reciprocal interactions between the individual and the environment, as well as human abilities to learn through social action, to perceive effectiveness, and manage and control oneself. Second, intrinsic motivation theory maintains that motivation is particularly potent when individuals engage in activities that they enjoy and/or consider meaningful.
More precisely, the concept of self-leadership builds on the notion of self-management, which is the ability of individuals to manage their own behaviors, and on the recognition of values and beliefs in work situations as sources of natural motivation. While self-management is primarily concerned with control, self-leadership is also interested in values. Furthermore, while self-management is concerned with the question of how to achieve a goal or standard, self-leadership is also interested in what the goals and standards should be and why they are worthy of pursuing.
Control systems include both organizational-control and self-control systems, where the first originate from organizational values and culture and where the latter originate from individual values and beliefs. Individuals largely govern their own values (which they objectify through standards), and individual values significantly guide behavior. Therefore, people tend to be moved to modify or create the situations where they are involved, by acting to reduce the level of perceived discrepancy between their own values and those of the organization.
In other words, the management of the interface between the two levels of control systems (organization and self) is largely determined by individuals. This is because, even though individuals may not have control of organizational values, they are the ones who largely decide their own values, which in turn influence their own behavior and determine how they may have an impact on the environment. Therefore, individual action is not completely submissive to the organization. Indeed, when individuals decide upon their own values, they are influencing their own behavior, that is, they are exercising self-leadership.
Furthermore, individuals who manage their own behaviors have less need for formal leaders in the traditional sense because they are exercising leadership themselves. Self-leadership may constitute a substitute for leadership because self-leadership strategies such as self-planning, self-direction, self-monitoring, and self-control may replace otherwise needed supervision. This implies that self-leadership is closely related to empowerment in organizations, the sharing of power between the leader and the follower, and organizational structures that allow power sharing.
This close relationship among organizational forms, power, and leadership has been widely discussed. It is suggested that the flattening of traditional organizational structures leads, inevitably, to empowerment strategies and distributed decision-making processes, giving way to more organic types of organizations. Such organizational practices characterize new, nontraditional leadership approaches where the relationship between leadership and power gains a renewed impetus.
The exercise of self-leadership involves both behavioral and mental activity that enhance the effectiveness of the mind and body through the interplay of four main types of strategies, each targeted at different areas: world-altering and self-imposed strategies, natural rewards strategies, redesign of one’s mental world, and team self-leadership.
Self-leadership scholars are also concerned with work ethics simply because their interest in the relation between behavior and values recognizes that value systems of organizations and employees may differ. The concern is that despite the potential hopefulness implied by complete optimal self-leadership in a given high-performing work system, one should be aware that it may not always be feasible to achieve high levels of self-leadership. Thus, more than being interested in efficiency and performance at work, self-leadership is also concerned with the moral and ethical aspects of how that may be attained.
Commentary on self-leadership would not be complete without addressing the view that the “self” consists of all conscious and unconscious states of a person. This notion introduces the (un)consciousness dimension of the self into the leadership debate. As such, the concept of self-leadership might be described more precisely as the noticeable and unnoticeable processes of influencing oneself. One may ask, If these processes occur in unconscious ways, how can individuals be fully aware of the consequences of their own thoughts and actions? Moreover, to what extent can researchers themselves be fully aware, explain, and understand actual leadership phenomena? While it is beyond the scope of this discussion to elaborate on these questions, they are offered here for consideration and reflection by leadership scholars.
Given that the notion of self refers to conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind and body, self-leadership views that account only for the conscious aspects of the leadership process leave out issues that may be essential for its full understanding. Addressing unconscious aspects of self-leadership might help explain, for instance, why optimal self-leadership may not be possible for every employee and why there are limitations in measuring self-leadership.
In conclusion, based on distinct philosophical assumptions that guide self-leadership theory, this research stream constitutes a valuable framework for understanding personal and social development, and in particular with regard to career development. First, it recognizes that personal values may have an important role in shaping thoughts and actions, including those related to professional careers. Second, it provides specific strategies and techniques that may help individuals to select career paths that fit their personal values and lead to natural motivation in work. Third, it signals that achieving complete convergence of organizational and individual values as well as power sharing may be difficult, if not impossible, organizational objectives. Last, self-leadership provides a distinctive lens for debating and reflecting on leadership ethics.
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