Leadership according to John P. Kotter is about coping with change. Leadership is increasingly becoming a non-negotiable component in the business environment. Competition is rife in major industries, unpredictable and it does not seem there is clarity ahead. Leadership is about coping with change through the setting of a direction which involves creating a vision and strategies required for achieving the required outcome. Leaders then align key people at all levels so they buy into the project and then motivate them to drive the anticipated change.
Take for example the shy and humble Darwin Smith not many would have heard of. Under his leadership, Darwin turned Kimberly-Clark from a company at the brink of bankruptcy to great. The company’s stock value had fallen by some 40% around the time he took reins at the helm as CEO. Smith had the foresight that the core business of Kimberly Clark; the coated paper had a bleak future and to stay relevant and competitive, a change was required. He then alongside his team decided to sell its mills much to the disgust of the business media and the wall street’s disapproval.
They then used proceeds from the sale to invest in consumer businesses that produced brands like Huggies diapers and Kleenex tissues. He laid out the vision to change to consumer paper business, he aligned people across the board particularly anyone that can help implement the vision and strategies, and motivated them by recognising and rewarding success. Kimberly-Clark eventually went on to beat Procter & Gamble in six of eight product categories. Darwin was a typical example of a self-led person. His leadership was authentic, he was also self-aware and never stopped trying to be qualified for the job, particularly when a member of the board shortly after his appointment reminded him he did not have the credentials. We will touch on these areas and much more.
If leadership is about coping with change, then self-leadership should look within having the same meaning at the personal level. This is the essence of this article. The difference between ordinary people and the people that will make an impact in the next 5 years is self-leadership. In fact, because of the current pandemic disrupting practically every industry at the moment, even the next few months, some self-led people have already started creating a path, a niche distinguishing themselves from the pack.
I would like to submit that self-leadership, is the continual process or ability to inspire oneself without necessarily any external pressure to deal with change. It is an intentional drive towards influencing oneself first and others towards a common objective. It is the first step or skill a potential leader needs to master before attaining full leadership status. If you cannot lead yourself, why should anyone be led by you? Change they say, is the only constant thing. The world was without Facebook in January 2004 and business was ongoing. But today, it is a different story.
Ask some business owners that conduct a substantial amount of their business operations on social media about imagining life without social media and the response will be predictably “no they can’t.” It’s the beginning of the decade and there is the Tiktok app today; cited as the 7th most downloadable app of the decade. With over 1 billion downloads excluding Android installs in China. Entrepreneurs, influencers, startups, businesses, corporate brands, and NGOs might want to take a second look at the platform. Self-leaders are already exploring how they can maximize the app to their business advantage.
How does one become self-led? Is it innate? Is it teachable? Must one be self-led if they are already being led by a good leader or organisation? Why is it important to be self-led?
The business world is becoming increasingly volatile, business processes are moving at lightning speed, organisations, managers, business owners are increasingly looking out for individuals that take charge, make the workload less burdensome and make effective decisions on their own. Waiting around for direction will only cost you and you start to play the victim blaming everyone and everything but yourself.
I recall in late January, where I meet with different groups of people and what I kept emphasizing was the need to embrace self-leadership in 2020. When I look back, I now understand why I could not get that topic off my chest. Why I kept being prompted to speak on the topic. Where companies are looking to shed their workforce and merge roles to the staff that provides the most value, self-leadership is the vehicle required to navigate through these times and remain relevant. I offer four areas of focus on your journey through self-leadership.
FIGURE OUT YOUR AUTHENTIC SELF
“To thine own self be true.” Purportedly coined by William Shakespeare, usually used in several contexts including being a better judge of oneself if one had done what he/she should or could have done. Self-leaders regularly conduct self-audits; whenever they take a key decision or action, they compare their expectations with the results and they take away lessons from that experience. Where smart people welcome feedbacks, self-led people do one better. They not only welcome feedback; they encourage it. So typically, they will surround themselves with mentors and coaches more knowledgeable than them so they can consistently glean from their wisdom, knowledge, or experience.
Over time, they would have discovered their strengths, identified what they are less good at, and found others with complimentary abilities to perform those responsibilities. What they then do is set the direction, align people, and then motivate them. They are also guided by a set of values that goes beyond material wealth and status. Something more much impactful with societal benefits at the forefront.
Take for example Toyin Saraki; a global health advocate, healthcare philanthropist, and the Founder-President of Wellbeing Foundation Africa. Lawyer by profession, Toyin has consistently been at the forefront, advocating for maternal, newborn, and child health amongst others. She regularly works with doctors, midwives, and other healthcare professionals and organisations and has been championing the advocacy for over 2 decades. It’s much more than fame and wealth, but more of a deep-seated value that drives her.
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE MAKEUP
Self-led people are aware of what makes them tick or burst and how it affects others around them and their performance at work. They have a clear routine and habits that aid their sense of purpose like Obama not missing a game of basketball in the mornings before resuming work. A self-aware person can assess themselves realistically. They understand their values and goals and will be firm in turning down a tempting job offer that does not align with their principles or long-term goals.
Think of the German Ambassador in England in the early 1900s who abruptly resigned from office because he refused to preside over dinner in honour of Edward VIII. What exactly happened? The monarch, a notorious womanizer had made no bones about how he wanted the party organized. The request was not consistent with the ambassador’s values. The German was later quoted as saying “I refuse to see a pimp in the mirror in the morning when I shave.”
Self-led people have got a high level of self-regulation too. They are not in denial about their weaknesses and disruptive moods. What they do is manage those disruptive emotions and channel them in a more useful and constructive way. Ursula Burns earlier in her career could not rein in her emotions which was a big deal for a CEO because you are the center of attention and you can destroy someone by showing your emotions, particularly the negative ones. It can shut people down. Ursula had to work on developing that aspect as CEO of Xerox, consciously setting the right tone required for the position.
However, her passion for the work itself and unwavering energy and sense of mission inspired her team and under her leadership, Ursula was able to turn a company once only known for paper copies into a viable and profitable business. Burns is the first African-American woman to lead an S&P 500 company.
A self-leader constantly finds sources of inspiration. As one relishing achievement for its own sake, the feeling is usually “what’s the next challenge”. That’s why a self-led person is constantly looking to improve his/herself. That’s why they usually walk out the door when superiors are not as ambitious or at least not accommodating their sense of purpose. Knowledge is one such area of inspiration. A self-led person knows the what, why, and how of his customers, industry, and product or services. This is applicable for entrepreneurs, startups, non-profit, large organizations, and even the public sector.
This sort of information is what a self-led person relishes, goes out of their way to obtain because it inspires and allows them to excel at their jobs or business. Knowing what customers need, why they need it, and how they decide to buy, then understanding the business terrain, competitor’s actions, and operations. They also know the products and their business portfolio so well that they can come up with innovative ways to market the product. They do not necessarily wait for the company or a superior to direct them. They tend to request resources that make access to such knowledge available or they get it themselves. They have a plan for their career and not even lethargy at the corporate level or that of colleagues derails their drive.
Take for example my mentor Debo, whose company back when he was still actively in employment, was starting to realise huge profits that did not translate to salaries being reviewed but instead a series of high-flying training programs. While his colleagues complained bitterly about unfair treatment regarding pay, he mulled over the impact the training would have and he was convinced he would be better for it in the future. He eagerly attended the training sessions while some of his disgruntled colleagues chose to pass. This brings me to the last but very important focus area for the self-leader.
A VISION & A PLANNED CAREER PATH
This is the second source of inspiration for the Self-led. It’s a vision. And it’s not just a vision, it’s a personal, ambitious vision that motivates them to keep the flames burning. They have a vivid picture in their head and it inspires how they think, behave, and lead. A big dream helps to achieve things you do not deem possible. They have drafted a career plan that aligns with their personal and professional life.
The plan is a road map to the vision they have in their heads and from this comes a course of action; including what to do, where and how to start, goals, and deadlines to set. Oluwatoyin Sanni; a trailblazing investment banker, lawyer, chartered secretary, stockbroker, and author laid out a clear plan for her career. Let’s not get carried away with our heads in the clouds. Integrating job and life priorities can be an illusion as she confirms, but there will always be trade-offs. Toyin at a point considered quitting her role as a banker early in her career, but having a vision and crafting a career plan alongside her supportive husband helped a great deal.
This is very key. A self-leader must be able to communicate sufficiently their vision or career or business plans. Then, and only then can you get the buy-in of others. Toyin’s husband was no exception. At the age of 27, young Toyin then a junior bank officer penned down the plan to be CEO of a financial institution in a decade. She figured out what was required to fulfill that big dream and followed up with hard work and prayers. In exactly 10 years, long after she had even forgotten she set the target, she became a CEO. “My story is just a pointer to the fact that we can determine our future if we dare to set clear objectives”, Toyin recalls.
Self-leadership is a journey and a process. The more self-leadership capabilities you acquire, the more successful you ‘ll become. The more successful you become, the more self-leadership you will need. So, it never stops. Don’t wait to be led, take charge once you are clear on the goals and objectives. Now is the time for you to take charge. And the good news is that you can learn to become a self-leader. You just have to keep at it, be consistent and intentional. The next steps you take will be crucial in your self-leadership journey. We have developed this assessment quiz which should give you a pretty good picture of where you currently stand.
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