MOL001 – Self-Leadership

(This is a continuation of the MOL writings; a series in which I discuss highlights from my graduate program in Organizational Leadership. For more background information on this series, please click here)

Self-leadership, simply enough, is the practice of leading yourself. Despite the simplicity of this idea, many people do not lead themselves; as if leadership was only measured by followers.

This is the first lesson in leadership: in order to remain an effective leader, one must practice rigorous self-leadership.

In the a follow-up book to their wildly popular The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes & Posner write, “Because leadership is personal, it also means that leadership development is self-development” (Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge, p. 122). The foundational text to self-leadership is Samuel Rima’s Leadership from the Inside Out.

The Call to Self-Leadership

The greatest issue facing leaders today is the disconnect between personal belief and public behavior (aka, authentic leadership). Increasingly, we hear of various leaders in our church, community, and government that are under public scrutiny for their personal choices and moral failures: pastors living lavish financial lifestyles, politicians having extra-marital affairs, businessmen swindling money. This dichotomy arises from a lack of self-mastery, or self-leadership.

For Rima restoring the art of self-mastery, or self-leadership will answer the call on our society’s need for authentic leadership: “…all effective, enduring leadership must be built on the foundation of effective self-leadership. It is our ability to successfully lead our own life that provides the firm foundation from which we can lead others” (p. 28).

Self-Leadership Defined

Self-leadership is defined as the ability to define personal mission and values, and to utilize resources to achieve goals and obtain effective, strong leadership others can rally to and hold confidence in. Though self-leadership can be treated as methodical, Rima argues that self-leadership is an art; there is some methodology behind it yes, but the most effective self-leadership style resembles the practices found in art. As with art, practicing self-leadership has its benefits, but often with significant costs.

Defining your Calling and calling

Self-leadership calls for the further discussion of our vocation, avocation, goals, and motivation. Self-leadership as a discipline is useless without defining and understanding one’s direction and motivation in life. First, the difference between vocation and avocation must be considered (or “Calling” and “calling,” respectively). Our Calling not only is our vocation but for those of the faith it is “to be reflectors of the wonderful light of God so that it will illumine the path of others and guide them to hear, understand, and respond to the Calling that God may be issuing to them as well.” (p. 58). Our calling, however, is the avenue through which we achieve our vocation; our “calling” supports our “Calling” often through ordinary employment. The point of intersection of these two—transcendental Calling and menial calling—is the explosive point in which one can find satisfaction in one’s avocation.

Applying Self-Leadership

Okay, you now know the why and what of self-leadership, but what about the “so what?” So what self-leadership should do is focus in holistically four areas of life to be in harmony with your vocation. The four spokes in a balanced practice of self-leadership are spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual.

  1. Spiritual: Leadership is a spiritual activity, and as such, a leader’s success or failure can be contributed to spiritual success or failure. Therefore, it is imperative to establish healthy leadership our spiritual lives, this the first venue is the most important, majority of public leadership failures might have been prevented if adequate leadership in soul care were exhibited. As Christians, and leaders within this context, special—and intensive—energy needs to be devoted to spiritual self-leadership, for out of the grace and love poured into us from God is how we are able to lead. If one cuts off the supply, how then can be appropriately and effectively lead? A Christian will not be able to lead effectively in this case, and in fact his leadership would be dead.
  2. Physical: Just as spiritual stagnation leads to fatal leadership, so also a lack of physical self-leadership leads to fatal leadership, and even literal physical death. What if you are a gifted leader who is passive in regards to physical self-leadership, and a heart attack claims your life and consequently your leadership? Your leadership and legacy are gone. The story alone acts as a great motivator to not allow inactive physical discipline to undermine one’s effective public leadership. I affirm strongly the need for a public leader to exhibit strong leadership in physical health to convey confidence to his followers that he is able to overcome the many obstacles to maintain the perseverance, physically, that leadership demands.
  3. Emotional: Emotional instability and lack of self-leadership can greatly undermine each of the three other venues of self-leadership, even if those areas are mastered. Dark moods can be a great barrier to others in our leadership and must be brought into control so that we can “fulfill our Calling and achieve our life goals,” (p. 192). No one is harder to follow than someone in leadership that cannot approach situations and others with emotions mastered.
  4. Intellectual: Self-leadership in the venue of intellect may be achieved the most naturally throughout the course of life, but too may be the hardest venue to make adequate time for. As Christian leaders we must, “recommit ourselves to the lifelong discipline of ongoing intellectual exploration, growth, development, and inter-disciplinary discourse” (p. 209). We need to become lifelong learners.

Why Self-Leadership is More than Self-Discipline

By now you’re wondering if self-leadership is actually just simple, old-fashioned discipline. If self-leadership is to be considered separate from personal discipline, what factor, or factors, would distinguish them apart? Personal discipline could be defined as intentional habits or practices directed towards personal effectiveness or growth. Conversely, self-leadership is the, “mobilization of necessary resources to realize something more beneficial and more effective at achieving their … stated mission” (p. 29).

Self-leadership, then, is intricately tied to accomplishing a stated mission, or pressing on to intersect our life with our vocation. The difference is subtle, personal discipline is directed towards inner growth, but without an explicit goal; self-leadership is missional inner-life discipline, aimed at realizing one’s Calling. Though the differences are covert, the assumption that self-leadership and personal discipline are the same is erroneous.

In Conclusion

There is a dire need to develop leaders who have holistic, integrative self-leadership in order to change the tide of public disdain and mistrust of leaders. This authentic leadership is achieved when someone brings their spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual spheres into alignment with their vocation. As it turns out, these are the best leaders to follow.

Have you heard of the idea of “Self-Leadership”–or one similar to it? Share your thoughts below if so, or even if not!

The next MOL writing will discuss writing a Leadership Development Plan which can be a dashboard for applying self-leadership and ensuring success in it.



  1. Well written Ryan! Thank you for sharing what you are learning, so in turn, I and others can learn, grow and step further into what it means to walk in self-leadership. I have been challenged and sharpened by the lessons you have learned and share!

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