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Psychology : Applied

The Elements of Personal Leadership: A Whole Self Approach

silhouettes of people walking down a hill with one in front.
Think of yourself as a team.

When we hear the word “leadership” we generally think about it in relation to others, but what about leading ourselves? By developing personal leadership we learn to do for ourselves first exactly what good leaders aim to do for others: working towards a goal, creating a culture of kind encouragement, developing people to be their best, and ensuring that the whole team is all pulling in the same direction.

Team Me:

While it might seem odd to think of yourself as a team - just consider how conflicted you actually are, and how many little versions of yourself you encounter everyday. Do you want to stay in bed or go to the gym? What happens when you are tempted to do the easy thing instead of the right thing? And how do you even know what the right thing is? How do we get all these parts of you on board?

Getting where you want to go in life and taking others along with you isn't just down to knowing the direction of travel. It takes a whole variety of skills that are psychological, emotional, and social in nature, not just technical know-how.

Why The Soft Skills Aren't So Soft:

Did you know that the correlation between IQ and career performance is only between 4% and 10%? That means that the rest has to be comprised of other things - these things are usually dismissed as the "soft skills". These skills however are a hot commodity!

Harvard Business School admissions is looking out for skills like:

  • Empathy

  • Perspective taking

  • Rapport

  • Cooperation

Corporations seeking MBA grads are seeking:

  • Communication skills

  • Interpersonal skills

  • Leadership

While it's great to be at the top of your game in the technical skills that you have trained for, it's not enough - neither professionally nor personally.

"People have to stop thinking of their feelings as irrelevant and messy, and realise that they are in fact highly differentiated, nuanced patterns of reaction, knowable sources of information."

- Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School

What Are The Elements Of Personal Leadership?

While a well-proven method or approach to meeting personal or professional goals may aid you in getting there, it's unlikely to help you do everything you need to do along the way, or even once you arrive. For example, learning to be better focussed and driven as an individual won't necessarily help you build and collaborate with a team. You need a variety of approaches to level-up all parts of your self to bring you closer to stellar personal leadership.

Drawing on more than twenty years of experience as a psychological clinician, as well as working as a business consultant and running a business myself, I have integrated a handful of theories and practices that combined lead to a multi-pronged approach to personal leadership. By developing different parts of yourself according to each of these methods your approach to personal leadership becomes more holistic, authentic, and appropriate to your own personality style. These disciplines include:

1. Clinical Psychology:

The real blood and guts of individual psychology. While clinical psychology has historically focussed on psychopathology, the stuff that goes wrong - the stuff that gets in our way - it has the largest body of theory and research on the inner workings of the human mind.

Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis, for example, has developed the concept of internal conflict showing us that different parts of ourselves want different things and that we're often in a battle with these different parts. Most people will be familiar with these parts:

  • Id: Your basic needs - from being lazy to being overly aggressive.

  • Super-Ego: The part that tells you what you should be doing and whether you've done it well enough (usually not in its opinion).

  • Ego: The part that's supposed to manage the other two, as well as your relationship to others and the world (hard job!)

How do we better get these parts working together and how can we support the beleaguered ego who's stuck in the middle?

2. Mindfulness:

The practice of mindfulness has oodles of research behind it demonstrating its effectiveness on everything from physical health improvements in blood pressure, reductions in levels of general sickness, and prevention of burnout. It is also shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and improve relationships (personal and professional) by reducing reactivity.

Tiles that say "Be Here Now"

"Mindfulness should no longer be considered a 'nice to have' for executives. It's a 'must have': a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress." - The Harvard Business Review

3. Emotional Intelligence:

While mindfulness will enable you to sit more comfortably in the driver's seat of your own life, you'll also be required to drive amongst others, and that's where EQ comes in. Emotional intelligence generally operates amongst the following domains which are generally split between personal competencies and social competencies.

Personal Competencies:

  • Self Awareness: Accurate self-assessment of your characteristics, skills, self worth, and emotional states

  • Self-Regulation: Well-developed self-control, high levels of trustworthiness and conscientiousness, adaptability to change, and capacity for innovation.

  • Motivation: Drive towards self-improvement, initiative, capacity to follow through, and optimism.

Social Competencies:

  • Empathy: Understanding others, an interest in developing others, working with and leveraging diversity, and the capacity to "read a room."

  • Social Skills: Highly developed communication skills alongside a capacity to authentically influence others. Collaborative leadership style that inspires others to participate and cooperate. The capacity to manage conflict and ability to catalyse positive change.

Soft Skills Pay: Literally

In a small study carried out by Boyatzis, Goleman, and Rhee interesting correlations were identified between leaders who scored highly in a variety of competencies and increased revenue obtained by their teams. Those who scored very highly in analytic reasoning, which is most closely related to IQ and technical know-how, on average attracted 50% increase in revenue to their peers. This is nothing to sniff at, but just look at the increases that were associated with the cluster of skills more associated with the skills that can be acquired through the practices mentioned above:

Correlations of improvement: Self-management by 78%, social skills by 110%, self regulation by 390%.

Now while we should take these numbers with a pinch of salt because (a) it's a small study and (b) "soft skills" are hard to measure and quantify, we should still take very good notice. Each of these "clusters" include a variety of competencies that can be learned. Sure, some people arrive in the world better wired for some of them than others, but if you can identify where your learning edge is, you can really up your game on all levels - personally, in your intimate relationships, and at work.

Respecting and Developing All of You:

The elements of personal leadership takes a very different approach to the kind of self-development and personal improvement that you may be used to. Ideally it tries to bring all parts of yourself along, rather than developing certain parts at the expense of others.

Feet on a rowing machine at the gym

For example the age old problem of eating healthy or exercising more is almost always down to focussing almost exclusively on the super-ego, the part that says "this is what you should do!" at the expense of the id, that just wants to lie in bed and eat ice-cream. If you don't support both, one will generally win for a while until it is clobbered by the other. We've all experienced this.

Developing personal leadership requires that we learn more about ourselves through thoughtful analysis, psychological acumen, and mindful paying attention. By doing that we identify what we're good at (our superior functions) and what we're not so good at (our inferior functions): how to honour the former and develop the latter. Once we've done that we turn outward identify how that works in relationships to important others, as well as systems and organisations.

Yes, There Is A Better You: Still You - Just Working Better Together

The approach that most of us take to self-improvement usually involves trying to get rid of or repress parts of ourselves we don't like, while attempting to grow the parts of ourselves we think we should be. This is an approach that almost never works. What your whole self needs is direct, collaborative, but compassionate leadership.

The bad news is that's a lot more complicated than telling yourself what you need to do better and finding ways of following through.

The good news is that the competencies that will get you there are learnable, and by bringing the whole of yourself there, your personal change tends to stick.


Resources For More Holistic Personal Development


Aaron Balick, PhD is a keynote speaker on this topic with more than twenty years of experience in this area offering business consultation, workshops, and trainings.




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