Self-Leadership: Portal to Freedom, Foundation of Success

by Scott Campbell

My original copy of Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People still bears the scars from the time I hurled it in anger against the wall of what was then my office. The broken spine and loose pages bear witness to my lapse in self-control!

I had come across Covey’s book in the early 1990’s, a time when my life seemed to be unraveling. I was angry much of the time, unhappy with my career, my marriage, and much of life in general. I had recently begun counseling to try to untangle this web of misery and was beginning to touch on some very painful events from my childhood. For the very first time in my life, I was beginning to acknowledge the impact of what had happened to me as a child.

And then I read Habit # 1 of Covey’s book: Be Proactive.

Essentially, Covey seemed to be saying, “You are as happy as you are choosing to be. You are responsible for the current state of your life.” When I read that I reacted in anger. And Covey went hurtling.

I was furious at him. I remember thinking, “What does this highly successful, affluent consultant who jet-sets around the world, whose clients are Fortune 500 companies, know about suffering? He’s had an easy ride and knows nothing of what prolonged childhood trauma can do to you. How dare he tell me that I am responsible for my current level of misery!”

But I couldn’t stop reading his book. He had struck a nerve, gotten under my skin.
When I returned to Habit # 1, I went on to read (for the first time) the story of the Jewish psychiatrist, Victor Frankl. Frankl, as some of you likely know, is the father of ‘Logotherapy,’ an approach to therapy that emerged out of his own experience as a survivor of the Nazi death camps of World War II.

While I might dismiss Covey’s experience as lacking credibility for his claims, I could not dismiss Frankl’s experience. Here was a man who had suffered in ways I could not imagine. Thus, when I read the words of Frankl as quoted by Covey, they struck the core of my soul:

“Everything can be take from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

These words came from a survivor of the most horrific atrocity of the 20th century, a man who had lost his own family and friends to the horrors of Nazi brutality.

These words I could not dismiss.

I began to realize that what Covey was saying was not a denial of my pain and trauma but rather, a way out of it!

The “pill” of assuming personal responsibility for my life was a hard one for me to swallow, but I realized that unless I accepted at a deep level that I was responsible for how I had responded to what had happened to me, I would forever be a captive of my past. But if I could accept that I had chosen my response, I was now free to choose a different one.

Hope began to dawn inside me. I started to believe that if I was responsible and able to choose my attitude, to choose my own way, I could choose a new and better path for my life. One that would result in greater happiness, greater inner freedom, and better decisions for my future.

This was my awakening to the importance—and the freedom—of self-leadership.

Since then my conviction has only grown that self-leadership is the foundation of a deeply satisfying, truly successful life.

I define “self-leadership” as the capacity and commitment both to take full responsibility for one’s own responses to life and to create a life that is personally meaningful and fruitful. It is the antithesis of shifting responsibility for one’s degree of happiness and satisfaction to others or circumstances.*

It is by no means easy to exercise self-leadership. From personal experience, I know how easy it is to become stuck in blame. I know the seductiveness of victimhood. For many of us, self-leadership runs against the natural tendency of our thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, self-leadership is, to some degree, counter-cultural. Our culture tends to be blame-oriented. I spill coffee on myself so I sue the company that brewed it. Practicing self-leadership can seem like swimming upstream. What’s more, life’s circumstances frequently are difficult to change—whether it’s a career that doesn’t fit, a marriage that isn’t working, financial difficulties, cynical colleagues, a tyrannical boss, a downturn in the economy, or a myriad other tough times.

It’s important to acknowledge and anticipate that self-leadership isn’t easy.
But it is vital to inner freedom and outer success.

When we fail to exercise self-leadership, we give our power away to others and/or circumstances. The failure to exercise self-leadership tends to enshrine the status-quo. It leaves success and positive change to chance and the desires, dictates, and decisions of others. It can foment feelings of bitterness, anger and disappointment (trust me, I know!). The price we pay when we fail to exercise self-leadership is huge.

So, how can we increase our practice of self-leadership? How can we cultivate it as a habit of mind? Here are five suggestions.

First, accept at a deep level that you are responsible for your past and present responses to what life has brought your way. Don’t deny the past or present and their impact on you. But accept that you had a role in adopting whatever negative beliefs, attitudes, and self-concepts that may have become imbedded in your life as a result of your past and present responses to life’s hardships. Give up the very understandable and natural desire to blame others for your difficulties or negative emotions. Choose to accept that your outlook and emotional responses to life’s challenges were/are your own choice.

This first step tends to be much more a process than an event. Especially if, like me, you have had years and years of practice in blaming others and circumstances for your pain and disappointments. So, commit to the process of learning to accept responsibility for your responses to life and the consequences those choices have created.

Second, start monitoring your self-talk and assumptions in specific situations. Watch to see when you are saying things to yourself (or others) like, “Well, if only they would…” or, “There’s nothing you can do when…” or, “You make me so…” These types of statements, verbalized or thought, lead away from the vista of self-leadership toward the murky bog of blame and reactivity.

Third, when faced with a difficult situation, consciously ask yourself, “What would it mean to exercise self-leadership right now?” If, for example, your boss has been berating you in front of others on a regular basis, ask yourself, “What would it mean for me to exercise self-leadership in this situation?” There are numerous possible answers that could be right for you: choosing to confront your boss at a separate time when you are calm, transferring to a different department, reminding yourself of the pressure that your boss is under and deciding not to take it personally. By asking the question you create the space to be proactive rather than reactive. If you have the time, journal your answers or, if you prefer, talk it through with someone to gain clarity about the best response for you.

Until self-leadership becomes a habit of mind, we will often need to pause and consciously shift to a self-leadership stance. Posing and answering this question forces us to look at circumstances and decisions from a self-leadership perspective.

Fourth, deepen your own self-awareness. The more you know about your deepest needs and values, your talents and strengths, as well as your stressors and blind spots, the more you can make choices that result in greater satisfaction and effectiveness. Self-awareness allows you to play to your strengths in exercising self-leadership. It allows you to better get your needs met, manage your stress, and compensate for your weaknesses. It helps you create circumstances that work for you, not against you.**

Fifth, dream of the future you want to have. While taking action is the ultimate expression of self-leadership, visualizing the future we want to have (whether that is a matter of responding differently in your current circumstances or changing the circumstances themselves) is a key for increasing our motivation for action. Furthermore, it actually increases the likelihood that we will do what we are visualizing. Athletes have used the power of positive visualization for years to increase their levels of performance by visualizing themselves excelling. Recent studies have demonstrated that visualization actually creates the patterns in our brains in advance that we will use during the actual performance.

Most of us already visualize regularly. It’s just that usually we envision things going poorly. Why not use the power of this mental process in a positive way? Exercise self-leadership over your imagination by using positive visualization to increase your likelihood of success.
These five suggestions should get you started on the road to self-leadership.

As I have moved more and more (though not perfectly) towards the regular practice of self-leadership, I have seen several positive results in my life. I am much happier about my present and immensely hopeful about my future. I have actually achieved more in the last decade than I ever would have imagined possible. And, most importantly, I am creating the life I want, rather than merely enduring what life had given.

Self-leadership isn’t easy. But it is vital. It is the foundation of personal and professional success. It is the portal to inner freedom. My bruised copy of Covey’s Seven Habits stands as a reminder to me of these truths.

* I want to emphasize that this is hugely different from denying the impact of our past or the real challenges and difficulties of current circumstances. Self-leadership is a perspective that allows you to acknowledge but not be trapped by the past or the present. It is the portal to inner freedom and the foundation for outer effectiveness.

** Models of personality type (Temperament, Interaction Styles, Psychological Type) are useful as tools to deepen our self-awareness. They give us insights into key dimensions of our psychological make-up, talents, unique stressors, and characteristic behaviors.