Leaders marching in band - cartoon

An old adage states that you can’t be a leader if no one is following you.  But in today’s fast-paced, hyper-competitive world, it’s time for those followers to start leading themselves.  (Click here for complementary infographic.)

This doesn’t mean that self-directed leaders are mavericks who ignore their employers’ corporate culture and values.  Instead, self-directed leaders are uniquely qualified to carry themselves through the necessary sacrifices in order to reach the final destination (Manz & Neck, Mastering Self-Leadership).

When workers are no longer waiting for the marching orders of their supervisors or managers, they become more responsive to the changing demands of their clients, shareholders, and the workplace.  By building self-directed leadership throughout the organization, companies can realize higher levels of employee commitment and engagement as well as increased productivity and individual employee accountability.

In other words, self-directed leaders create a self-sustaining culture by:

  • Anticipating opportunities and problems within their functional or departmental area
  • Aligning their daily work activities to ensure that organizational priorities are met
  • Acting with the best interests of the organization in mind
  • Acknowledging the contributions of their coworkers and peers

Self-determination and autonomy are important characteristics of self-directed leaders.  By empowering and trusting workers to decide the best course of action for them to take in order to achieve strategic goals, employees have a greater stake in the outcomes.  They no longer need to seek approval and permission before acting because they are well-versed in the goals of the company and are thus confident in their own decision-making.  Such initiative is highly valued in today’s rapidly changing environment.

While this sounds like a great way to run a company, the idea of self-directed leadership challenges a fundamental (but erroneous) assumption:  that leadership is a role that is limited to only a few.

If you want your organization to be more agile and adaptable to unexpected challenges and opportunities, then embracing self-directed leadership can be a valuable tool — but you will need to modify some of your current operations.

5 Ways to Build Self-Directed Leaders 

(Click here for complementary infographic.)

  1. Define what self-directed leadership means in your organization.  Educating managers on the specific characteristics and expectations is essential.  Be sure that “self-directed” means aligning individual action with corporate goals.  Identify productivity and performance standards as well as recognition programs to reinforce employees who take the initiative to respond to threats or opportunities.  As leadership blossoms throughout the organization, it also simplifies succession planning.
  2. Recruit candidates who will excel in a self-directed culture.  Although behavioral interviewing questions are probably already a part of your recruitment arsenal, be sure to add questions or provide inbox activities that relate to self-management, positive self-esteem, and a desire to learn.
  3. Provide on-demand resources to all employees.  Self-directed leaders are constantly searching for answers to problems and are passionate life-long learners.  Tap into this desire by providing mobile-friendly, 24/7 access to a library of videos, podcasts, articles, templates, etc. that will help build their leadership skills.  Create an organizational imperative for learning by adding self-development as part of performance reviews.
  4. Manage by inspiration.  Discussing goals in percentages and dollars will not ignite the creativity and problem-solving capacities of self-directed leaders.  Instead, don’t be afraid to communicate with emotional messages that appeal not only to workers’ intellect, but also to their imagination and core values.  Self-directed leaders have a vested interest in success, but need a compelling “why” to take the initiative.
  5. Reinforce self-directed leadership through story telling.  This is similar to managing by inspiration.  Stories tend to evoke emotional responses, which in turn trigger greater commitment to the message.  Rather than telling employees what to do, show them what can be accomplished.  Create a clear vision and mission that engages employees — but be sure that the methods used in the story are aligned with cultural values.

Don’t forget to download this article’s free complementary infographic!

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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