Self-leadership: great leadership starts with you

Kristen’s teenage son is in Europe, looking to make a mark with some football clubs. Grayson is talented, and he’s developed a unique style of football: tenacious, tactical and smart. But like Kristen, he’s vertically challenged. Surrounded by larger teammates who play a different game, it would be easy to second-guess his strengths and rule himself out.

Most professional women are familiar with that doubt. The autocratic leadership style that dominates the world’s largest companies (and pop culture)? Well, it fits the rest of us like a poorly tailored Powrsuit. This 2019 Forbes top 100 list is a case in point – their explanation of why it only features one woman concedes we really had no chance. 

When we speak with more experienced women leaders, many cringe when reflecting on their first leadership roles. With little support and guidance and fewer relatable role models, they adopted the accepted leadership style of the time. Their clumsy attempts to mimic ‘good’ leadership traits often left them burned out or, even worse, burning bridges.

There is another way.

Self-leadership isn’t fluffy; it’s fundamental

Self-leadership boils down to recognising that you must learn to lead yourself before you can effectively lead others. That means understanding who you are and how you want to show up as a leader – and taking responsibility for getting there. In an increasingly complex world, the practice is starting to get attention.

Many leadership development programmes focus on building skills related to conflict resolution, critical thinking and managing relationships. We sometimes sense an eye-roll when we explain that a key pillar of our Membership Network is establishing each participant’s unique leadership identity. Instead of leaving with a checklist of new skills, they gain self-awareness and adopt a practice of continuous development. 

We get it; it sounds soft.  But the building blocks of self-leadership are actually the hardest to get right – especially when there are few examples to follow. 

Unlocking excellence: the four building blocks of self-leadership

With the gender leadership gap still refusing to budge, it’s time to break the mould and build our own. Instead of mimicking the traits we’ve grown up with, we can curate a unique and authentic leadership identity. By using these building blocks, those of us who don’t fit the mould can discover and accept ourselves as leaders, establish boundaries, and hone those strategic yeses


Being consciously aware of who you are and what makes you unique. Deeply understand and embrace your beliefs, biases and values and actively use that knowledge to guide decisions. 

Ask yourself: “Can I list my core values?” “What environment brings out my best self?” “How do I think/feel/act when my fundamental needs aren’t being met?” and “Am I applying my strengths to achieve my goals?”.


Know and accept the strengths you bring to the table and those you don’t. Challenge limiting beliefs, acknowledge and outsource weaknesses, and invest in honing your value.

Ask yourself: “What strengths make me uniquely valuable?” “What beliefs are no longer serving me?” and “What gaps do I need others to fill?”.


Know where you want to go and establish habits to get there. Lead by example with classics like holidays, working hours and stress.

Ask yourself: “Do my words and actions align?” “Can I put some boundaries into place?” and “Am I proud of how I show up at work?”.


Embrace continuous self-learning; use feedback and failure to adapt and improve. Put in place good habits (and small actions!) to reflect, iterate, and progress. Recognise and influence what you can control and avoid falling into victim mode.

Ask yourself: “When was the last time I asked for feedback?” “Is the fear of failure holding me back?” and “What should I start doing to progress on my goals?”.

Foundations first!

Core leadership skills are essential. Communication, conflict management, and collaboration are required tools in the leadership toolbelt – but that toolbelt is useless until the foundations are in place.

Take action

Get out a notepad and set a timer for 30 seconds. Freewrite your answer to this question: What environments bring best out in me?

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