What does “leadership begins with the self” mean? Leadership is primarily understood as leadership of employees or leadership of an organisation – using different techniques and methods. Sometimes the spot is on management, sometimes the ideas of leadership are focused. After all, these task are traditionally allocated to a manager. And when taking care of these tasks, he or she can fall back on countless ideas and approaches as to how these can be managed. Leadership begins with the employee or with the task or with governance. Why then focusing on the Self when it comes to leadership?

A completely different understanding of leadership

Let’s say leadership starts with the self. Then leadership would no longer be limited to the role of a leader. Actually, everybody would be a leader. Leadership would be embedded in the self. And if everybody leads him/herself, why do we need leaders after all? Then leadership in the best sense would be provided by everyone, driven by self-organisation. For this, a suitable culture with suitable principles and the most necessary norms is required. Besides that, a powerful purpose and a shining North Star is desirable. By the way, this has already been described by Charles Manz and Henry Sims in “Superleadership“.

Admittedly an ideal image, in the best case a target image. Until then there will still be leaders on the road and for them there are good reasons to start leading the self. Namely to be able to consciously shape certain parts of their own personality and thus their own effectiveness.

Self knowledge – a basic requirement for people in leadership

In fact, a precise knowledge of one’s self is not as common among managers as one might expect. In any case, in qualifications or management audits, it becomes apparent regularly that the image of others differs considerably from the self-image. It is therefore not easy for (prospective) managers to name or assess their motivation, competence or factual and emotional impact.

The perception named here corresponds with statements from employee satisfaction surveys or commitment studies, which make it clear that employees accuse their managers of not being authentic, too power-related or not close enough. When managers are confronted with these statements, it is often very surprising to see how they are perceived. Since this view does not correspond at all with their own assessment.

Now, however, a deeper self-knowledge can be seen as a basic requirement in working with other people. In order to avoid projections or to recognize counter-projections, to differentiate hypotheses from reality and in the sense of a safe assessment of situations and possible de-escalation of conflicts, a precise self-perception is essential.

Working on one’s own self-awareness is thus a first leadership task for managers. Feedback from colleagues/friends, reflection with a coach and participation in appropriate qualifications are suitable support in this respect. The topic is just getting hip. Currently, there are also a lot of offers on the market. Here for example an offer from TCJG.

Good leadership is a question of attitude

Self-management also means being aware of one’s own attitude in leadership and to maintain a reflected approach to it. This means knowing your personal values, beliefs and needs. And to understand these as the foundation for one’s own leadership actions.

In his book “Haltung entscheidet” Martin Permantier offers to differentiate between attitudes in six different clusters and follows as far as possible the Spiral Dynamics approach or Ken Wilber’s reflections on memes. An analysis of one’s own attitude by means of the classification presented in the book also helps to better understand and align one’s own actions. One’s individual attitude forges best – oneself and the team.

The examination of one’s own attitude should be a further matter of course for managers, just like self-knowledge. Only those who can clearly name their attitude are in a good position to check whether it fits in with the corporate culture or whether “forced adjustments” need to be made, which are then perceived by the environment as inauthentic or manipulative.

At the same time, the attitude shapes the role model demanded by the manager. Authenticity will only be perceived if attitude is repeatedly experienced in coherent action.

Then it is also reliable to follow traditional or always new leadership models. Whether they are called “Servant Leadership” or “Human Leadership”, “Connected Leadership” or “Agile Leadership”. If one’s own attitude represents the spirit of the organization in which the leader works and if one’s own heart sets the pace, there is no need for static guidelines from the model catalogue.

Updating knowledge about innovation is of course something else. It is indispensable. But not only for managers.

Self-management wants to be practised

When self-knowledge is acquired and one’s own attitude is reflected upon, then there is still the behavioural level. If you know what makes you “tick” and what impacts your own actions and if your own effect can be described and there is awareness of how your own behaviour shapes the culture in the team, then you can proactively shape your actions consciously.

This is at first a question of will, in the sense of what I want to contribute to, my own purpose, which describes why I stand up every day as a leader. Then there is the ability, that describes how I will act, how I express what I want to get my team to do, how I go about designing. And then there is action, that shows what I do exactly, when and how often, in order to put will and ability into action.

While the purpose is best identified and formulated in peace, stillness and with some distance, the development and expansion of skills and procedures and, above all, consistent action is a longer process that usually takes place in iterations. Thus, an intention is followed by a period of experimentation and then again and again by practice. Until doing becomes a habit. On the way, discipline is usually required, as it is known from sports. Practice again and again, do not give up. Somehow this is like training for a marathon.

Resilience can’t hurt. Setbacks are part of it, especially when disturbances come from outside. A conflict situation within the team, a new supervisor, pressure from sales numbers.

Tips to ensure that leadership starts with the self

With a powerful driver, your own purpose backing you up and a goal of where you and your team should go, it will be easier to stay on the learning path.

It is proven to be a good idea to visualize both. In other words, to create a picture of one’s own “what for” and the desired result (vision) in one’s head or even on paper.

Rituals can be used for the daily behavioural routine. Just as you go jogging every day, for example, each day can begin with 15-20 minutes of reflection and alignment. Or one day a month can be scheduled for the “self”. Very important on the learning journey to oneself/with oneself are feedback sessions to check if the intended effect is achieved. Regular lunches with colleagues or employees can be helpful to allow space for this.

Becoming a manager is certainly not always easy, being a manager is a challenge, especially a manager who fills his role with charisma. As surveys show us again and again, it is more or less easy to master this challenge.

Those who are more successful are either natural talents or they have set out on their own journey to become themselves. An exciting journey by the way. And a rewarding one. Because leadership starts with the self.


Would you like to shape that?

This is something we´re good at.


Rethink leadership? Nowadays one often hears that leadership needs to be rethought. Why should we do that? Hasn’t been enough already thought about leadership, experimented enough, modelled enough? In the meantime, there is a multi-faceted multitude of new approaches to leadership, from Servant to Human, from Connected to Mindful Leadership. The idea of collegial leadership […]

Leadership in its present form no longer seems to work. Looking at the level of employee leadership, none of the leadership models of the recent past can currently secure a sustainable place on the podium. Probably also because leadership appears more comprehensively for managers. They are currently usually strategists, managers and leaders and today also innovators and change agents in one person.

The excessive demands are not far away. At the same time, the needs of employees fall by the wayside. It can’t, probably won’t stay that way. So where will leadership develop into?

How leadership still shows itself today

Today we often still meet executives who have learned their trade in the big schools of management and leadership, whether in St. Gallen or Harvard or … and have practiced over many years with sometimes more, sometimes less success. They are still involved in classic line or matrix structures, usually in a double mission as managers and leaders.

Mostly measured by the results that can best be expressed in hard figures – whether these are figures related to production or sales of products and services or figures that reflect the satisfaction of customers or the team.

At the same time, however, there is an increasing demand in these areas: to give meaning to one’s own actions and those of the team or to make them visible, to discover and develop talents and to see and enable each individual team member. And, last but not least, make sure that the processes are adapted to an ever-increasing dynamism and at the same time are already being acted on using scrum & Co agile.

And how leadership is lived at the moment

Sometimes we meet completely different managers in the here and now. Those who grew up in the last named “school”. They have learned from the outset not to think and act in long, medium and short-term planning cycles but rather in backlogs and sprints.

They have always been project orientated, are at home in the agile manifesto and are well aware of the importance of customer centricity. Team spirit is their elixir. Managers who do not distinguish between entrepreneurs and leaders. Their names are different. They name themselves owner or master and they are part of the team. In their understanding, it is also the group that counts, less the individual and his needs and development.

As a rule, however, these “managers” don’t really find their place in the classic silos and have a great deal of difficulty with the required “management-suitable” slide flows, the benefits of which they don’t see at all.

Managers are increasingly in question

Let’s face it, being an executive today is far from desirable. One of the named types is torn between the different requirements and expectations, even today driven by the classic pattern of goal achievement in time. The growing demands of a changing workforce, be it Generation X or Generation Y and Z, are increasingly demanding.

In fact, employee retention figures today are often not good, as the latest Gallup Engagement Index shows. This is a trend that is continuing and is exerting even more pressure on managers who are already working hard. The most questioned one is the direct manager, who is unable to live up to the expectations of his employees.

On the other hand, if one asks managers what they see as the reason why “leadership is less and less successful”, one hears of a lack of concentration, a rapid flood of stimuli, generally lower competence set-ups, especially in a dynamic environment and fear of making decisions. Or from a reluctance to face change, a so-called “fixed mindset” of the older generation of employees.

Together with the colleague who comes from an agile childhood, the manager outlined here increasingly experiences emotional overload reactions. Even if for different reasons. Both are not happy in the current structure and have a rather manageable happiness index.

Leadership does (not) meet the expectations of employees

And they’re not alone. If we change perspectives, we can draw an even more critical picture on the employee side.

Even if employees show themselves slightly more satisfied with an agile manager. All in all, however, the leader doesn’t really come off well. Only the fun and joy factor is usually rated a little higher in this management concept.

If one asks the employees, however, their subjective view is that they learn too little personally, are not sufficiently empowered and are not appreciated by their superiors. Or that there is a lack of responsiveness to their individual needs, such as reconciling work and family life or dealing with the increasing dynamics of work. Many employees today have the impression that they are not developing fast enough or are not able to contribute their talents. They do not feel sufficiently informed and not sufficiently perceived as human beings. In their eyes, individual support should be given even more weight.

Instead, they experience that their supervisor measures and aligns them by numbers, at least in the classical structure. Too little work is done in a team and that motivation often suffers from a feeling of pressure.

New leadership concepts alone do not solve the central challenge

The attempts to solve these challenges with approaches such as Transformational Leadership” or more recently “Servant Leadership” have not yet led to a lasting change in the situation.

They subjectively generate more happiness in the individual and thus make a significant contribution on the way to a more humane working environment. With this kind of leadership, the fulfillment of the expectations of the employees is better secured than with conventional formats.

However, the actual challenge is not solved in this way – the combination of the requirements of promotion and demand bundled in one person at the same time. Whether on the part of the manager or that of the employee, a bottleneck always arises. How authentic and unconditional is promotion if at the same time the focus is on output? And where will the individual contribute his or her energy when numbers and people compete?

And then there was something else – the customer

To make it round. We haven’t even talked about the third in the alliance, the internal or external customer yet. The customer, of whom we know that his expectations are mutating by leaps and bounds. The fact that he is becoming more and more “unpredictable” or demands to be analyzed very precisely, observed and understood.

To create products and services that uniquely live up to customer’s wishes is the aim. To establish wow-experiences and fulfil customer needs, even if the customer is not aware of these yet.

No, the customer no longer deviates from his expectations and requirements. On the contrary. He experiences confirmation in the fact that the fulfillment of his concerns has the highest attention. Many machines and systems are finding it easier and easier to identify customer needs in time and propose suitable solutions at the same time.

In order to always be up to date here and to meet this pressure of expectation appropriately, it is imperative to give the customer’s voice a greater hearing in a timely manner and to prioritize his point of view.

Where is leadership heading?

“Leadership” in the sense of a healthy and sustainable organization can and should therefore be viewed from three perspectives: employee, customer, performance. The competences required to cope with the tasks in the respective dimensions are very different.

Ideally, the potpourri of skills required can hardly be provided by one person alone. Not only because this is an enormous demand on the skills profile of a single person. Rather it is for the high-level personnel itself, above all even more for coworkers, a difficult balancing act to present themselves in contradictory roles authentically.

How credible is a person who, at the same moment, makes a claim for excellent quality that is justified from the customer’s point of view and demands its implementation from the employee, whom he should simultaneously develop and promote in his role as a promoter?

People at all levels of organizations are increasingly exposed to this dilemma. Which voice should be followed? How passionately can a point of view be represented? How authentic or manipulative is a leader in the eyes of an employee? And, what should the employee orientate himself to? Today the demand for excellence and quality? And tomorrow to be encouraged to build on individual strengths?

Another dilemma arising from this management model is talent development. Should a manager, who today is still primarily measured by performance records, report his real high potentials in talent pools and thereby bear the risk of suffering a loss of competence in the team? A real conflict.

Quite apart from the fact that leadership is transferred to the shoulders of the team in the medium term, current theories of organizational development are believed.

And what if we simply rethink that?

We are currently working on what this might look like in concrete terms. Today, tomorrow and beyond.

More about that in another blog.

While sometimes the solution to a specific work-related problem is obvious for external observers, the directly affected person might stand in his own way. He might not gain access to the right solution. Good advice or technical instructions are not of any help. Often facts are known, but cannot be utilized.

A clear case for coaching. Working on a solution starts with the analysis and clarification of the coachee’s concerns. Customized and focused. The key competency of the coach is to listen closely, to read nuances between the lines and to ask the right questions in order to disclose the key issue.

Then the coachee’s goal is identified. What would it look like if the situation or problem would have been solved already? Usually the coachee is capable of describing the goal and to capture it in an image. The coachee draws strength from this image, it gives him wings. Then, the path towards the goal has to be sketched, building the framework which leads towards departure . On the way it might be helpful to hand refreshments, to install safety nets, to reduce the risk of falling or relapse. And to make sure the coachee does not lose his courage. As soon as first milestones have been achieved and the remaining path towards reaching the final goal looks clear, it is the coach’s time to leave.

That is it for the process. Essentially coaching enables new links inside the client’s mind to gain access to solutions already known. After all, the coachee is the only one who knows best what fits him right. Although he might not immediatly know that he is already knowing it.

The movie below brings some inspiration on the topic coaching:

Coaching Explain Movie

The new Leadership Report 2015 by Zukunftsinstitut is out! It shows the latest and most important trends for successful leadership in today’s and the future’s world of collaboration and innovation.

Today’s world is more fast-moving than ever. By planning everything precisely and in detail, companies are wasting their resources. Hence, companies have to be flexible in order to adapt to the changing conditions. That’s what the Leadership Report calls for – Organizational Agility. In this fast changing world it’s of great importance for companies to be agile and flexible and not to get lost in planning.

So what will the future for organizations and companies be like?

The future employee will be a knowledge worker who is an expert on a certain topic and works for several different companies for projects on this field. The future workforce requires a flexible organization form – a fluid organization as it is called by Zukunftsinstitut. This organization form is characterized by “open and interchangeable membranes” instead of rigid organization boundaries. The task of future leaders will therefore be to design such a workplace where employees are free to innovate and where they are emotionally connected to their task and workplace. Leaders should internalize and set an example of what makes up their company in order to be successful.

And what does this mean for you?

The future is about uniqueness and flexibility. So, stop planning, reflect on yourself and on your strengths, orientate yourself, fall into the chaos and lead!

Download the new Leadership Report by ZukunftsInstitut