Developing Self Leaders—Your Organization’s Secret Weapon

By training individual contributors to develop into self leaders, organizations become more customer centric, cost effective, innovative, resilient, and flexible.

The most essential element of your organization’s success is the proactive behavior of your individual contributors, new research from The Ken Blanchard Companies reveals. These findings reflect the evolving nature of leadership. Top-heavy leadership approaches are shifting. In their place, individual contributors are being asked to step up in new ways, take on more responsibility, and contribute differently. Proactive self leaders perform their core tasks better and continually add value to their organizations as responsibility for successful initiatives falls on their shoulders.

In light of this leadership evolution, The Ken Blanchard Companies studied how self leadership provides additional benefits for organizations. More than 1,300 leaders participated in the study to explore the relationships between self-leadership attributes and work intentions, including the intent to:

  • Use discretionary effort
  • Perform at above-average levels
  • Endorse the organization as a great place to work
  • Remain with the organization
  • Be a good organizational citizen who acts in ways that benefit the organization

The data show that employees who exhibit the behaviors of a self leader are more likely to:

  • Expend discretionary effort on behalf of their organizations
  • Have high intentions to do their job well
  • Endorse the organization as a great place to work
  • Remain with the organization
  • Behave in ways that support the organization

Based on the analysis, the following findings were established as illustrated in the correlation table (see Table 1). The table shows that the correlation coefficients between the nine self-leadership behaviors and the work intentions are, in general, medium (.110-.259) to large (.260+), except for a few that are small (.01-.109).

TABLE 1: Correlation between the Self-Leadership Behaviors and the Five Work Intentions (N=1,350)




The Mindset of a Self Leader

Despite compelling evidence that individual contributors are pivotal to successfully implementing organizational initiatives and improving customer loyalty, they often are overlooked when it comes to training—and that can derail organizational performance and productivity. According to self-leadership expert and author Susan Fowler, a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, what many organizations don’t understand is that self leadership is a skill that can be developed.

“While some employees may be more naturally inclined to be proactive self leaders, the good news is that both the mindset and the skill set of self leadership can be taught and learned, including three critical components,” explains Fowler.

Challenging assumed constraints is the first component of a self-leadership mindset. An assumed constraint is a belief based on past experience that limits new experiences. “History is filled with inspiring examples of those who challenged assumed constraints. For example, when Stephen Hawking challenged the conventional wisdom that severe physical disabilities would limit his career, he went on to become one of the most celebrated physicists in history,” notes Fowler.

But, Fowler reports, it is day-to-day assumed constraints that prevent people from excelling at work. “For example, if you assume your manager should know what you need because she makes more money than you do, you are less likely to seek the help you need. If you assume no one will listen to your idea because you tried it once and were rejected, you seriously limit your ability to effect positive change.”

Activating points of power is the second component of a self-leadership mindset. Believing they lack the power to affect outcomes or take initiative because it’s not specifically spelled out in their job description may be individual contributors’ greatest assumed constraint. Too often, individual contributors assume they cannot be leaders or influence outcomes because they do not have position power.

Fowler encourages individual contributors to recognize that, in itself, power is neither good nor bad. It’s how power is used that matters. Having position power (a position of authority to allocate budget and make personnel decisions) may be desirable, but individual contributors can make even greater contributions through their task power (the ability to influence how a job or task is executed), personal power (having personal characteristics that provide an edge when pursuing goals), relationship power (being connected or friendly with people who have power), and knowledge power (experience and expertise).

When employees activate their points of power, they can dramatically improve their performance, productivity, contribution—and ultimately, their sense of well-being. Fowler offers these examples:

  • An administrative assistant activated her task power when scheduling a top-level executive by creating new procedures to maximize his time and productivity.
  • A graphic designer activated his knowledge power to become a regional manager of the graphic design department for a large firm.
  • A young woman whose father founded the ad agency where she worked tapped into her relationship power to advocate at the dinner table on behalf of other employees.
  • An instructional designer, whose talent was inherent and seemingly easy, finally activated her knowledge power and began teaching others.

Being proactive is the third component of a self-leadership mindset. “Proactive behaviors can be taught,” says Fowler. “Self leaders have learned to hold themselves accountable for getting what they need to succeed. Instead of waiting for feedback, they have learned to ask for it. Instead of asking for solutions, they have learned the skill of proactive problem solving. They often think about new projects they’d like to tackle and consider what they might need from their managers to make it happen. They conduct proactive conversations at every phase of their development to ask for direction and support. And a side benefit is that they experience greater energy and less stress at the end of the day.”

Individual Contributors as Self Leaders

Individual contributors are the silent majority of your organization. Yet, while they are the most crucial part of the organization’s workforce, they are a woefully underused resource and rarely receive the training they need to reach their full potential. Performance in organizations often is stalled because employees don’t know how to ask for what they need when they need it.

People armed with the skills of self leadership feel more positive about themselves and their jobs. They also have the characteristics of employee work passion: They perform at higher levels, endorse the organization positively, have higher levels of autonomy and competence, and are more likely to remain with the organization. When people become empowered self leaders, they’re proactive self starters who look for ways to make the organization flourish.

Organizations traditionally have aimed training budgets toward leadership development. But research indicates that this narrow focus comes at the expense of individual contributors and the success of important organizational initiatives.

As it turns out, the most crucial element in successful initiatives lies in the proactive behavior of the individual contributors required to carry out those initiatives. The conclusion reached by this compelling body of research is that organizations would be wise to equip their employees with the mindsets and skill sets to diagnose their situation, accept responsibility, and hold themselves accountable for taking action.

A culture that fosters self leadership is a characteristic of great organizations. By training individual contributors to develop into self leaders, organizations become more customer centric, cost effective, innovative, resilient, and flexible. All because they have mastered a key best practice: making sure leadership happens everywhere—not just in the C-suite.

Dobie Houson is director of Marketing Research for The Ken Blanchard Companies and is responsible for competitive, market, and customer intelligence.

Susan Fowler is senior consulting partner for The Ken Blanchard Companies and author of several best-selling books, including “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does.”