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Leading the self



Leadership is a multifaceted construct with an important component being leading oneself, intentionally influencing your thinking, feelings and behaviours to achieve your goals (Bryant & Kazan, 2012). It is a practice that requires deliberate consideration and structured self-reflection and is essential for growth (Nesbit, 2010).

But there’s one key aspect to leading oneself and that’s developing a leadership platform. Leadership platforms are based on theoretical underpinnings of self and, coupled with structured self-reflection, aim to demonstrate one avenue for personal development.

My leadership platform is designed as a flow chart of concepts that guide the user through a self-reflection process to allow a deep exploration of the issue at hand. It is derived partly from the self-structured Branson (2009) exercise and the theory of planned behaviour (Ajzen, 1991). This approach to leading the ‘self’ aligns with Jackson’s (2013) suggestion that, “once you realise that great influence is not personality driven, but rather, the results of choices you make to shape your style, you will be well along the path to new opportunities”. This framework can be applied to many scenarios in life and I have found it particularly useful when considering leadership development.

Plans result in action

According to Ajzen (1991), the theory of planned behaviour (Ajzen, 1991) has become the most influential model of predicting human behaviour. The model is based on the notion that, “if we plan to do something we are more likely to do it”. A person’s intention or attitude toward carrying out the behaviour is a central factor in the individual’s intention to perform a given behaviour” (Ajzen, 1991, p.181). This concurs with Gilbert (2014) who claims “intentions as the best prediction of behaviour”. The theory of planned behaviour outlines three fundamental elements that affect the ability of a person to undertake a challenge and be successful: behavioural attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control (Downey, 2015).

The first element, behavioural attitudes, consists of two aspects: affective attitude and instrumental attitude, and these directly reflect enjoyment and the likelihood of success in undertaking an activity. The second element, subjective norms, also consists of two aspects: injunctive norms and descriptive norms. These norms reflect the level of support an individual will require for success from close relationships and associates. Finally, the third element, perceived behavioural control, is the extent to which the person feels capable and confident to adopt the behaviour and is influenced by previous success with similar activities. Ajzen (2011) reports that “past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour” and furthermore, contributes to “people’s perception of the ease or difficulty of performing the behaviour of interest” (Ajzen, 1991, p.183). Factors such as confidence, past experience and familiarity with the circumstances all influence a person’s response and likely success with the task.

The theory of planned behaviour highlights the power of our thoughts. Self-reflection and thinking through issues is the only way clarity and leadership development can be achieved (Nesbit, 2010, Gilbert, 2014, Branson, 2009). It is the initial thoughts that shape and lead to action. Equally interesting to me is Dan Gilbert’s comment that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished”.

Again, this highlights for me the importance of being conscious of our thoughts, words, and actions as overconfidence can hinder progress and self-doubt can inhibit action (Branson, 2009). We think we are at our best and discourage the type of self-reflection that will lead to personal (improvement) development.

My leadership platform guides the user to dabble in the detail of challenges and events to understand ones’ self. I adopted the theory of planned behaviour to develop my leadership platform because it is a theory underpinned by motivation and action – which are key concepts to my leadership approach. The theory of planned behaviour has enabled me to utilise the study of self, which fundamentally states that if you think it and devise a plan around it, then you will do it. Additionally, if the key to successful leadership is in knowing yourself (Bryant & Kazan, 2012, Branson, 2009) then I suggest in my platform that you must first want to know yourself and make a plan to know yourself, as this mirrors the stages of the theory of planned behaviour.

Furthermore, in seeking to understand self it is important to undertake critical reflective practices (Cunliffe, 2004), to understand yourself and your decision-making processes. My leadership platform invites the user to develop an understanding of self by cycling or navigating forward and backwards to explore how an event influences motivation and behaviour.

Self-esteem’s effect on leading

Five dimensions of self have been employed in the platform. They are identified in the illustration on page 45 as life experience, self-esteem, needs, thinking and behaviours enacted and explained. Life experience relates to the key memories of your life, which according to Branson (2009), “are those many important memories from your past that you carry around with you” (Branson, 2009). In my role as a leader there are two significant categories of life experiences: those events that have occurred throughout my life that influence my values, and those life experiences which affect my current position. The latter includes present and future challenges which have the potential to have some influence on my leadership journey.

The second element in the illustration is self-esteem. Self-esteem is the opinion you have of yourself (Fennell, 1999). This reflects how you feel and the dialogue you have with yourself (Cleghorn, 2002). Positive experiences are likely to elicit positive feelings towards yourself and vice versa for negative experiences. Your self-esteem is reflected in your language and behaviour and permeates all that you do.

Needs or motives “enable you to operate effectively regardless of your level of self-esteem” (Branson, 2009). They are the rules you live by and often we are unaware of these key motives. Our core needs drive our actions and attainment influences our self-worth.

“Developing an ability to become conscious of your motives is at the heart of authentic leadership” (Branson, 2009). This requires patience, practice and a commitment to understanding yourself.

Belief is what you think is true and right based on your experience, values, needs and thoughts. Your beliefs greatly influence your actions and are cemented over time based on your experience, while you are often unaware of your underlying values. “As such, your personal values play a key role in guiding your actions” (Branson, 2009). This can lead to conflict between your actual values and what you want others to believe you stand for (espoused values) or what you personally would like to commit to (desired values) (Branson, 2009). Authentic leaders maintain integrity by knowing what they believe and acting in line with their beliefs (Jackson, 2013).

Behaviours are an enacted and observable product of the internal process of making meaning of life’s experiences. They are “formed through the interplay of your self-esteem, motives, values and beliefs” (Branson, 2009). DuFour’s (2012) work on positive learning teams suggests that behaviours can influence belief, as practitioners see reward for effort with a given strategy. I adopt this mindset when working with staff on a collective agenda.

I initially designed the leadership platform to support aspiring leaders to unpack a key experience in their journey. Through critically reflecting on an experience, the individual can become more self-aware and better able to respond in challenging times.
Increased pressure on leaders makes it “more important to develop different ways of thinking, organising, managing, and relating to people” (Cunliffe, 2004).

The platform asks the user to identify a leadership experience. The process then enables reflection on the experience in terms of self-esteem, needs, beliefs and behaviour.

Each layer requires deep reflection and consideration of the personal driving forces behind the key elements. The design of the platform allows the user to move forward and backwards along the tool guiding reflective analysis. “Reflective analysis can be both retrospective – making sense of something that happened in the past and examining reasons why we made a decision or acted in a particular way – and anticipatory – planning our future actions” (Cunliffe, 2004).

Critical thinking

The platform enables the leader to reflect on a critical event and deconstruct the thoughts, feelings and actions that played out. “By thinking more critically about our own assumptions and actions, we can develop more collaborative, responsive and ethical ways of managing organisations” (Cunliffe, 2004). I have used the platform to reflect on a difficult conversation with a member of my middle management team.

The conversation, while at times uncomfortable made me feel positive as I was pleased with the way I engaged. I was motivated to build a positive relationship and to work through the issues. The event continued to reinforce my thinking and beliefs that clear and direct communication is essential in positive relationships.

The behaviours I observed were open, conciliatory body language, clear and direct dialogue and solutions-focused outcomes. These behaviours in turn encouraged me as a leader and reinforced my self-esteem and overall was a positive experience, all be it, in a challenging situation.

The platform for me provides the structure for self-exploration and analysis of present and potential challenges. Additionally, I have used my leadership platform with my aspiring leaders group. They have found the tool useful regardless of where they are on their leadership journey. Professional growth occurs when the leader is able to “look beyond their own self-interests to focus on larger mutual interests” (Graen, 1995).

However, the potential of the platform may be diminished when the leader does not make the time to engage in the practice fully. All leaders are busy and the latest principal wellbeing survey reflects the challenging times principals face. This data only serves to reinforce the importance of understanding self to allow leaders the inner confidence to act and serve their community.
Branson (2009) also recognises the dynamic nature of the educational climate, where principals need to make moral decisions every day. These decisions cannot be solely cognitive assessment, not just a problem-solving perspective.

To find true solutions, the leader is driven by their morals and makes decisions that they truly own. Contemporary leadership frameworks which guide school systems in the development of their leaders refer to the importance of the self in leadership. Now is the time to engage fully in the development of our leaders.

The latest principal wellbeing survey serves to signpost the change in times and the importance of systems to invest in their leaders’ development. Nesbit, (2010) proposes that self-directed reflective practices are a cost-effective method of leadership development.
Similar Ben Jenson (2017) acknowledges that the inquiry cycle is the best driver of adult learning that leads to behavioural change. I recommend that schools invest in their leaders by developing their skills in self-reflection.

Branson, C. M. (2009). In search of authentic leadership. Brisbane: Australian Catholic University .
Bryant, A., & Kazan, A. L. (2012). Self-Leadership: How to Become a More Successful, Efficient, and Effective Leader from the Inside Out. Sydney: Mc Graw Hill.
Cleghorn, P. (2002). The secrets of self-esteem: Make the changes you want in your life. London: Vega.
Cunliffe, A. L. (2004). On becoming a critically reflexive practitioner. Journal of Management Education, 28(4), 407-426.
Downey, A. (2015). Introduction to the Theory of Planned Behaviour. Retrieved from Youtube:
DuFour, R., & DuFour, R. (2012). The school leader’s guide to Professional learning communities at work. Victoria: Hawker Brownlow Education.
Fennell, M. (1999). Overcoming low self-esteen. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.
Gilbert, D. (2014). The Psychology of your future Self. Retrieved from Youtube: V
Graen, G. B. (1995). Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of leader-member exchange theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi-levle mulit-domain perspective. Leadership quarterly, 6(2), 219-247.
Group, C. L. (2014). Locating yourself the key to conscious leadership. Retrieved from https://youtube/fLqzYDZAqCl
Jackson, D. (2013). The Leader who Inspires. Brisbane: Dan Jackson.
Jenson, B. (2017). 2017 Principals’ Conference: Every student, every school: lighting the path for innovation, equity and impact. Brisbane.
Nesbit, P. L. (2010). The Role of Self-Reflection, Emotional Management of Feedback, and Self-Regulation Processes in Self-Directed Leadership Development. Human Resource Development Review, 11(2), 203-226.
Principal Wellbeing Survey. (2017). Retrieved from Principal Health & Wellbeing: