Self-Management vs. Self-Leadership


Last week, I wrote about the limits of a narrative orientation toward life. In short, over-indexing on a specific personal story can become constraining and pigeonhole you into a rigid trajectory.

I am going to pick that thread up here in a discussion on the difference between self-management and self-leadership.

In her latest book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Hermina Iberra writes:

“Management entails doing today’s work as efficiently and competently as possible within established goals, procedures, and organizational structures. Leadership is aimed at creating change in what we do and how we do it, which is why leadership requires working outside of established goals, procedures, and structures.”

When you are operating in management mode, Iberra continues, you usually know what you’ll get for the time, effort, and resources you invest. You have faith that you’ll meet your goals because you are using the skills and procedures that have worked for you in the past.

But when you are in leadership mode, she goes on, you’re asking, What should I be doing instead? You spend your time on things that might not have any immediate payoff, and may not even pay off at all. Transformation, Iberra writes, “is always more uncertain than incremental progress, because belief in the rightness of a new direction requires a leap of faith.”

Iberra focuses on management and leadership in a workplace setting, but I think these definitions also apply to individuals. After all, in many areas of our lives, we unknowingly operate by the principles of self-management or self-leadership.

When you focus too much on a specific story you run the risk of locking yourself into self-management mode. You get accustomed to the way things have always been and the way that they’ll inevitably go. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s actually quite beneficial and efficient. Having a story that provides a structure for where your life is headed saves you a lot of time and energy versus existing in a world with infinite possibilities for everything.

And yet, when you want to make a change, when you want to shift from self-management into self-leadership, specific stories can become traps. It’s like the Nobel-winning psychology researcher Dan Kahneman is known for saying: don’t ask if a concept or construct is true; ask of what and when is it true.

Personal narratives are tools. Instead of defaulting to always using them (or never using them), you can ask yourself: Is the story I am telling myself about myself helping me move toward my goals or is it getting in the way? Do I want to be operating in self-management or self-leadership mode? Do I want to be using existing structures or do I want to be taking a leap of faith?

There are no right or wrong answers. The very act of asking these questions is where the benefit lies. When you put words to an unnamed thought, feeling, or concept, you shine a light on it and make it tangible—and thus you can wrestle with it in new and meaningful ways.

Here’s to the wrestling.


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