16.11.2023 | Susanne Bauer

Agile Leadership Part 3: Self-Leadership

  • Agile Leadership
  • Agile Organisation

Discover the power of self-awareness and self-leadership! The journey of change begins with yourself. Find out how to activate your inner resources and achieve your goals.

In the series on Agile Leadership, Part 1 covered the basics, and Part 2 delved into psychological aspects. The next developmental step for an agile leader is the intense exploration of oneself. Only those who know themselves well and observe their own behavior can recognize the impact of their communication on team behavior - a crucial consideration given that leadership primarily occurs through communication.

Agile leaders are active participants in their teams. Ideally, they are close to their teams, communicating and interacting with team members daily. Their behavior plays a significant role, influencing team dynamics. To avoid acting blindly, it is crucial for them to engage with themselves consciously and shape their behavior and work intentionally. Failure to do so may result in thoughtless actions, which can either turn out well or negatively affect e.g. psychological safety. Dealing with complex challenges becomes difficult when leaders are unaware of their own influence on the system.

Know Yourself

To lead others, one must first lead oneself, which requires a deep self-awareness. This entails being conscious of one's values and significant beliefs. Values determine our decisions and attitudes towards others and ourselves. For example, if loyalty is a crucial value, your decision regarding a new position may differ compared to if innovation is a significant value for you. An associated belief about loyalty could be: "Only those loyal to their company deserve rewards." This belief will manifest in your attitude toward team members, potentially favoring those who have been with the company longer in promotions over those who have changed jobs more frequently.

For self-assessment, it is important to know your stress triggers, enabling better preparation for or adaptation to unpleasant situations. If a conflict with a team member is particularly challenging for you, you need a different approach than if you are composed in that person's presence. You must also question your emotional control (do you easily lose composure in certain situations?), examine your reactions, and consider the impact you want to achieve. If you are frequently surprised by your emotions, it will also affect the team. Conversely, if you can assess yourself well and know that you might react emotionally, you may choose a different setting, team composition, or approach.

Self-awareness also includes your worldview and beliefs about other people or society (e.g., "People are helpful and support each other in emergencies" vs. "People always act selfishly, and I can only rely on myself"). Your life visions and goals are also part of self-knowledge. Where do you want to go in life, and what do you want to achieve? Finally, it is crucial to know your self-image. What do you think of yourself? How do you want to be and be seen?

Unfortunately, these aspects are often neglected in our education systems. Few have addressed these questions early in life. However, self-awareness brings significant benefits, not only in leadership but in every decision one has to make.

Be Aware of Yourself

If you want to get to know yourself better, self-reflection is necessary. This requires time, tranquility, and mindfulness—things often lacking in a hectic work environment. Here are some examples of how you can practice self-awareness despite a busy schedule.

Observe Yourself: Self-awareness begins with observation. Try taking an overarching perspective in everyday situations, viewing the situation "from the outside" or "from above." Helpful questions include: What would a fly on the wall observe? If I zoom out of the situation or fly over it like a bird, what would I see? How might the other person perceive the situation? Or, more specifically, regarding concrete behaviors: What emotion am I feeling right now? Am I stressed or tense (sweaty palms, clenched jaw, furrowed brow, etc.)? What am I thinking right now? What am I afraid of?

Perfect self-observation doesn't happen overnight. Start with simple situations, just observe without evaluating or planning further steps. Over time, you will improve, and you can increase the level of difficulty.

The next step is self-reflection. Set aside dedicated time for this. At the beginning, I recommend small steps, such as spending 5 minutes each evening pondering the question: "What did I succeed at today?" Unfortunately, some people equate self-reflection with self-deprecation, exposing and condemning everything they perceive as wrong. Therefore, consciously focus on positive aspects. For those more experienced, I recommend collecting different reflection questions and examining various aspects regularly.

People tend to evade unpleasant observations. If it could hurt our self-esteem, we tend to ignore, block out, or deny it. However, our blind spots provide valuable clues to developmental potential. Seeking regular feedback from others can be helpful. Be conscious when asking for feedback, and don't devalue or punish messengers of negative feedback—express gratitude instead. Remember that giving feedback is not easy, requires courage, and is quickly abandoned if one feels unheard.

Working with coaches also helps in better self-awareness. Coaches ask questions you wouldn't ask yourself and can provide new perspectives you haven't seen before. Moreover, just having a coach forces you to take time for yourself.

Lead Yourself

The better you know yourself and the more consciously you behave, the better you can lead yourself. Those operating in the dark will struggle even with simpler leadership situations. It's not just about shaping your own work but also about taking your needs seriously and, ultimately, navigating through complex situations more effectively. The following behaviors contribute to effective self-leadership:

Taking Responsibility. Refusing responsibility presents oneself as a passive victim with no answers to challenges. You can certainly take responsibility for your own thoughts, actions, and feelings. For instance, accepting interpretations or hearsay as facts makes you passive and not actively involved in the thinking process. Taking responsibility involves separating facts from fantasy and questioning your sources.

Providing Focus and Clarity. Begin with yourself—how do you want to work, what do you want to focus on—then work on organizational goals. Without clarity from personal goals, you'll encounter confusion, extra effort, finger-pointing, and frustration, not just for you but also for your team. Lack of clarity might contribute to the feeling that you and your team are talking past each other.

Using Leverage. This aligns with focus and clarity. Concentrate on things that concern you and those you can influence. Don't let things that don't concern you or that you can't influence distract or block you. For example, if you find part of the company's strategy nonsensical but are not in a position to change it, consider what you can still do to improve the situation. Constantly complaining won't help, but perhaps you can focus on other aspects of the strategy that make sense for your area, break down the strategy to make it meaningful for your domain, or gather more information about the background of the strategy to make it more understandable. Be creative in expanding your leverage: maybe you can influence someone who can influence the strategy.

Agile leaders implementing these three factors experience themselves as more effective. This increases the belief that their actions yield the desired effects, in turn positively impacting motivation, decisiveness, and optimism.

Be Kind to Yourself

Self-leadership also involves treating oneself with respect. Many leaders deplete their own resources and pay insufficient attention to their well-being. To exert positive influence on the system, one needs strength and energy. Exhausted leaders cannot achieve much. Therefore, take good care of yourself, be kind to yourself, and regularly replenish your energy. In the first step, consider what gives you strength and energy—this can be various things, from sports to extended periods of rest, good conversations, a hug, a good movie, etc. It is important to regularly check and recharge your "batteries."

In summary, to lead effectively and motivated, self-leadership is essential. Agile leaders should engage intensely with themselves to understand their communication behavior and its impact on the team. Taking responsibility, focus, clarity, and using leverage are behaviors contributing to effective self-leadership. The central developmental step towards this is self-awareness through observation and self-reflection. Only through this can leaders achieve real changes (towards greater agility). Following the motto: If you want to bring about change, start with yourself.

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Agile Leadership Part 4: Agile Team Leadership

In the next part of the Agile Leadership series, you will learn more about agile team leadership and how to create the conditions for self-organization, a culture of learning, conflict capability, and responsibility in agile teams.

If you are passionate about the topic of Agile Leadership, or if you simply want to know more about the aspects mentioned in this article: We cover these topics comprehensively in our workshops and spotlight trainings, leaving plenty of room for practice and discussion. I would be happy to meet you there.

Overview of our trainings on Agile Leadership