We find leadership everywhere—whether we like it or not, even when it doesn’t seem necessary.

The word leadership seems to be a buzzword, too. We can’t blame it, though; a lot could be at stake just because of the leadership, whether it’s of a small business or a huge empire.

However, one thing caught my attention: personal leadership. I didn’t understand what “personal” exactly meant in this curious term.

Is it about leading yourself, as if to say it’s personal to you? Is it about leading others on a personal level? Or is it perhaps about treating things in a personal manner rather than the usual uptight/corporate/formal way of living life in the fast lane?

I think personal leadership is often overlooked, perhaps even dismissed as something inessential. Everything should run like the typical business. We want results. There are real leaders, anyway. What is personal leadership even for?

In this article I’ll talk about what personal leadership is all about, what its impact to you is, and why it’s important. You might even have a slightly mistaken idea about what it truly means to be a leader.

What Is Personal Leadership?

Personal leadership can be defined as the personal behavior of a leader in carrying out their tasks at work, including demonstrating expertise, building trust, caring and sharing for others, and acting in a moral way.

In fact, personal leadership is said to mediate the relationship of professional leadership and the willing cooperation of others. In this sense, personal leadership indeed is about human interaction so that a group can work without the needless feeling of being coerced or plain anxiety—the group would willingly and gladly work in harmony.

As a leader, however, one might not know which particular behaviors or traits should be developed, hence we can bear in mind the ancient saying, “Know thyself.” You must continuously learn about yourself, heed what could possibly be your strengths and weaknesses, and discover what you don’t know.

Leadership isn’t just about fulfilling the roles stated in the job description. It’s also about showing your value that’s largely based on who you are. It’s not even about your position, but about how you choose to act and do your job.

Finally, personal leadership can boil down to just yourself, without all the business and management theories you can possibly learn. It’s a process that can be internal only to you.

Who Are You?

Since personal leadership is largely about being who you are, your Personal Leadership Identity (PLI) emerges.

As a leader (not necessarily titular), others would expect a certain mix of behaviors and traits that should come with your position. This can cause tension on your natural self in fulfilling the role.

Watch out, maybe you’re trying to project an image incompatible with your true self just to be that leader. There are many ways to lead. Leadership doesn’t always mean the stern or military approach many would presume.

Nurturing your PLI can also give you a deep sense of meaning and happiness in the long run. Your PLI then becomes part of your life purpose, especially if people look up to you. You wouldn’t take a job that can potentially help and change others’ lives if you don’t find any meaning to it, or if you’re only for the paycheck, so to speak.

Changing your career path can be the worst-case scenario if you find that your PLI doesn’t match your work life. It might not be easy, of course, but doing so will probably serve you in the long run, even if the new path is harder.

One way to assess your PLI is to identify the values, strengths, skills, passions, and ideal conditions that facilitated your best and most enjoyable successes. This means that aside from identifying the “qualities of a good leader,” you also identify those that particularly show you’re only human.

For example, your “leader” qualities could be intelligence, promptness, and aggressiveness. But that’s not all. You also have your “human” qualities: humor, outdoorness, and compassion. All of these qualities characterize your PLI. There might be more.

Therefore acknowledging your PLI might take some time because it’s precisely about knowing yourself.

Our PLI’s are unique in a way. None of us have the same combination of “leader” and “human” qualities, and this makes for more dynamic organizations, which in turn become better in fulfilling their mission.

Once you discover your PLI, don’t fight it—don’t fight who you are. Let your identity shine; the only direction left is to improve.

It Shouldn’t Be That Hard

All of us demonstrate a sense of personal leadership in one way or another. It’s not about who you are or what you do. It’s about how you do stuff.

We can learn from the following example.

An employer can ask their applicants this nonleading and open-ended question:

Could you tell me about a time you showed personal leadership?

It’s a question that’s open to all sorts of answers and will most probably give the best insights as far as one’s attitude about work is concerned—a critical qualification for any job.

The answers reveal two kinds of applicants:

  • one that finds it hard to come up with a “good” answer
  • one that gives an answer real quick

A common misconception about leadership is that it’s supposed to impose control over other people. I would argue that many leaders resort to this way of handling a group, but personal leadership is about knowing and showing your value that it also serves as an inspiration for others to discover and develop their own value as well.

On the other hand, people who naturally show personal leadership would be glad to tell you about their successes. They can easily cite one among the many, many instances they’ve displayed such behavior.

They have a positive attitude about handling problems and this attitude influences those around them. They share common values with the organization not because those people simply work there, but because they believe in those values on a deeply personal level.

As a consequence they are not the egotistic individuals that take all the credit—they simply do their best and impact others in a positive way, making work even more inspiring.

Time to Get Specific

Your values hugely determine the direction of your life. They resurface whenever you make decisions, especially those you perceive life-changing.

Leadership is a huge responsibility and is not exempted from the sphere of your values.

Therefore identifying your personal values is a must.

Write down all possible values you can think of, whether they apply to you or not. Take your time and identify just a couple of personal values that you think resonate with you the most.

Similar to a life purpose, these values must be meaningful to you—they can either showcase your strengths, reflect your wound, or mirror a person you look up to. Anything can go as long as these are the values you swear by.

Your values will then become part of the foundations of your leadership style that will manifest in your behavior, decisions, and ways of dealing with other people.

People with a Good Sense of Personal Leadership Do These

They keep learning. Competence is one way to earn respect not only from your subordinates, but also from your superiors. Natural leaders are willing to learn more about their particular industry or craft. This way more and more people can depend on them.

They listen. Personal leadership is about relationships. Listening to people, especially those who also possess excellent leadership traits, will not only benefit these leaders, but also help their group grow and flourish.

They keep their word. Nobody wants to work with someone they don’t trust. Good leaders practice critical thinking and are careful of their word. This doesn’t mean they should be infallible—a solid integrity is gold, whatever the case may be.

They inspire others. Personal leadership radiates positivity. This means that even when times are tough, they still encourage levelheadedness and cool, and they don’t forget that solving problems is precisely what their company—or life, in general—is all about.

They communicate well. Communication is among the most vital aspects of humanity. It’s how ideas are spread, suffering people are motivated to fight, and better options are found. People who exercise good personal leadership make sure that their message is well understood.

They set priorities. They don’t give in to their whims. They make time for everything. They are aware that their actions yield consequences. Thus they always hone their focus for a particular task, before jumping to another. They know that multitasking is nothing but a fad that doesn’t go away.

They are humble. They know that putting their ego first fulfills nothing but feeding a false sense of entitlement. Humility can go a long way especially in terms of expanding their network and forming lasting friendships.

They step up in times of crises. Natural leaders know what they can give when the group encounters some hiccups. Accordingly, they are confident in their skills and will welcome other ideas, even if initially bad, and use them to come up with optimal solutions.

They treat everyone with respect. They understand that the world also operates on respect, not necessarily because of ulterior motives, but because respect simply fosters a healthy organization.

walking aquatic birds

How About Your Personality?

I don’t want to talk about the (in)famous MBTI—unfortunately, it’s only for entertainment.

Instead, I’ll talk about a package real psychologists study and use, “The Big Five.”

As a leader, you would want to learn about your personality traits and invest on your strengths, thereby illuminating your PLI for others to see.

The five personality traits, or more commonly known as The Big Five, have their roots in as early as the 1880s. Today they form the acronym OCEAN or CANOE.

  1. Openness to Experience
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Extraversion
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Neuroticism

Each of these traits is characterized by six individual facets, and they have been known to be correlated to one’s behavior and life satisfaction.

In particular, however, some of these traits mirror those of a good leader’s.

For instance, openness to experience is of people who enjoy the arts and new experiences. They have a vivid imagination and like complex problems.

Second, conscientiousness is of individuals who are organized, methodical, and who tend to keep going and going. The six facets of this trait are competence, order, dutifulness, achievement-striving, self-discipline, and deliberation. It’s not hard to imagine a true leader naturally having this trait.

Finally, extroverts love being around other people. They are assertive, love excitement, and radiate positive emotions. Like the previous two traits, extraversion is a good indicator of leadership quality.

They’ll Tell You What’s Up

Feedback is an aspect of personal leadership that helps you gauge how well you’re faring. It shows you almost instantaneously how effective your leadership efforts are in any setting, perhaps with the only qualifier that you are surrounded by able and willing peers.

There’s one formula you can use in this regard—the 70/20/10 rule: 70% of what you learn is from actual on-the-job experiences; 20% is from some sort of mentoring or coaching from your superiors or others; and the 10% from the formal or classroom or, I would say, by-the-book, approach.

Some organizations don’t even bother with the 70%, neglect the 20%, and almost squander on the last 10%, when the 70% could be just as important as “simply showing up” where one learns practical and real-world wisdom, which has much greater weight than all the possible fundamentals and theories one can only try to store in their head.

You will meet all kinds of people. Remember that the field is important, especially when dealing with people outside of your organization. You may not like everything you’ll hear—that’s the point of feedback—but you’ll get essential information firsthand. You’ll find nuggets you may not find in books.

Follow this rule, get out there.

How This Is All Personal

It seems that the curiosity about leadership mostly surrounds organizations and the like. There isn’t much to be said for personal leadership, in particular.

It then becomes quite bothering because any kind of leadership—whether at the top floor or at home or wherever—personal leadership is the core that only branches out to the other areas of your life. Perhaps this is a reason why a lot of successful businesspeople fail in their personal life.

This inevitably brings us to the final idea—that all these things personal leadership is wrapped around should be applied with your network, colleagues, bosses, customers, kids, spouse, drinking buddies, what have you—only after you’ve mastered using them to lead yourself.

You can now start to imagine there’s a clone of yourself who’s always with you, watching over you. You know, just like our earliest ancestors believed that a god or an angel watched over them.

Anyway, this clone of yours will check whether you are continuously growing and striving to be the ideal person you imagine who would manifest personal leadership traits as discussed above. For the record, you can call him or her your personal leader, pun intended.

So let’s review some of those traits.

Expertise. Are you learning all you need to learn and are they conforming to your strengths, morals and values?

Trust.  Do you hold yourself accountable for decisions you make? Do you trust that you can take on novel challenges and that you can learn even if things don’t turn out so well?

Values. What did you learn last week or last month that can potentially change how you view things or life in general?

Willing cooperation. Do you enjoy what you’re doing? Are you motivated? Could there be a conflict between what the work requires and your values?

Respect. What can you do to enhance your self-respect? Will quick fixes accomplish that?

Ego. What hurts your ego? Do you accept that there are things outside your control and that your energies are finite?

The 70/20/10 rule. How can you improve your personal leadership style? Are you pragmatic? Do you have an accountability partner? Do you always get caught in information overload?

I think personal leadership needs to be talked about more often. All of us have faced wrong acts of leadership, perhaps with parents or guardians being the first offenders. (It’s not that they are horrible leaders. They just could’ve known better—and it’s okay, nevertheless.)

As we get older we come to learn about those leaders that surprisingly affect our quiet lives, from a global level to national all the way to our homes. They may be fit for the job description but fare terribly on their personal mishmash—their values, ego, attitude.

We sometimes forget that leadership starts with leading our lazy selves and that there’s this malleable side of us that can adapt to situations and influence people important to us.

Personal leadership indeed boils down to leading yourself, after all. Because you may be feeling lazy or unmotivated or just plain crap, but your clone knows how to lead that occasionally unproductive person that is you.

And when your clone understands you, you then start to understand the other people you live and work with. You start to realize what empathy really is and, like leading yourself, you begin to lead others.

It’s doing the inconvenient stuff anyway because doing them makes you better, more resilient. It makes you an effective leader.

That’s how personal leadership is personal. It starts with you, not with the idea that you’re this glorious commander who tells anybody to do this and that and then maybe another cup of coffee. Right now, Person.

Personal leadership is the everyday and subtle battle you face—against yourself—of overcoming folly and getting closer to who you genuinely want to become. If you can’t lead yourself, then maybe try using the concepts of business leadership first.

But understand that business isn’t life. You might want to start with that.

(Image Credits: Bureau of Land Management California, Punting Cambridge)

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