A fair bit of my coaching and mentoring work is with people in operations and product management functions. And irrespective of the objective of my engagement, the issue of self-leadership often emerges at some point.

Yet self-leadership doesn’t just apply to product managers or procurement & supply chain management folks, for example, but to everyone.

It is a cardinal requirement for anyone who wants to excel in their work and thrive in their career.

It’s always gratifying to see people start to gain insight on this – usually via various conduits, like tips, examples, role play, and so on. And it’s even more fulfilling to witness someone get inspired as they feel their self-leadership grow from applying the practices in their everyday life.

Simultaneously, they start to appreciate what it really means to be the architect of your career destiny.

Architects have to make choices and decisions when they’re planning and executing a building, e.g., choice of materials, structural dimensions, lighting design … And it gets even more challenging and exciting when it’s a magnificent building like a castle.

Likewise, we all have to make choices and decisions when building our career castles. And the consequent outcomes have indelible impacts on our destiny.

Yet we may not recognise those effects – especially when they stem from short-term decisions or actions whose consequences stack up over time, like an insidious disease or addiction.

That’s when our self-leadership is sorely tested.

Perils and paradoxes

Can we be focused and disciplined enough to dedicate and channel our  attention and energy at doing stuff that really matters to our career success?

It’s easier said than done, as I’ve discovered from personal experience.

Yet I’ve also discovered that focus is a priceless building material, and personal discipline is a tree that bears everlasting fruit.

The more you use your focus and discipline to practise self-leadership, the stronger your self-leadership muscle grows – alongside your wisdom.

For example, you’ll increasingly realise that taking intentional action is far more productive for your career success than spending too much time on social media and other digital pursuits which add no value to your destiny. Your expanding self-leadership will expose the perils of becoming derailed and enslaved by your digital gratification.

Digital slavery lurks everywhere in this age, often sapping our personal effectiveness and self-leadership; that’s when technology becomes a nemesis rather a valuable tool to use to craft our success.

It’s one of the paradoxes of humankind that things that are good for us (e.g., in the beneficial ways we can leverage them) can sometimes be bad for us too (e.g., when we become fixated with them). Like an artist who becomes fixated with his palettes or paintbrushes, forgetting that they’re simply tools of his trade; his vocation is still to create paintings – that’s where his focus should be.

Is your career castle magnificent enough?

Sometimes we delude ourselves that our technology addiction or social media gluttony provides us with learning; no doubt, from the plethora of online sources now available. Perhaps it’s because the internet has made everyone an expert or guru on everything. Beware of social media prophets with proverbs, promises and platitudes. Check to validate robust proof of their miracles before buying into their religion.

Your expanding self-leadership will also highlight to you that social media addiction isn’t the only way technology can enslave us and cripple our long-term career success. Email is another.

Many of us have unknowingly developed the habit of instantly checking, replying to or taking action on emails. That’s not the most effective way to work. Nor is it characteristic of meaningful self-leadership.

Emails may have become a poison to our productivity, much like social media gluttony.

My antidote to the poison is to constantly remind myself that the time is exactly “XYZ” time on “ABC” date and I’ll never get this moment in my life again. I get one shot at it; so I must use it wisely – on things that take me towards my goals, as I have planned.

Those goals can be varied. If the goal is pleasure, then spending the XYZ time with my mistress is priority. If the goal is serenity, then a walk in the woods might be where the time is invested. If the goal is to hone my voodoo magic skills, then the time is spent in my voodoo shrine …

It all comes down to the goals we’re targeting; planning ahead how to spend our time to realise our goals; and the self-discipline to stick to the plan, despite the constant pings of new emails or social media alerts.

If our goals are powerful and motivating enough, the pull of the pings and alerts will likely be suppressed by the allure of working towards attaining the goals.

So, are your career goals powerful and motivating enough?

Or, put another way, is your career castle magnificent enough to capture and retain your full focus?

Alternatively, what do you do: do you let the poison get you, or do you have a different antidote?

Behavioural cocaine

Whatever your answer, always remember that being a puppet jumping to the summons of pings and alerts is not self-leadership in practice; rather, it is being led by something other than yourself, a behavioural cocaine of sorts.

Sometimes our drug dealers supplying the cocaine can be the people we spend time with in our private lives – when our unproductive behaviours or outlook on life simply mimic or are heavily influenced by theirs, and we’re blind to the negative impacts that has on our effectiveness, growth and career success.

At other times our cocaine dealers may be the very organisations we work in – when the organisational climate or prevalent culture tunnels our vision and outlook; or when we allow ourselves to become organisational clones, embracing and mirroring thinking or behavioural patterns that don’t aid the fulfilment of our career aspirations.

You mustn’t let the organisational culture you work in make you lose sight of who you are, the sort of professional you aspire to be and what you truly want from your career.

You may need to be flexible and learn to deal with some hogwash at work. That flexibility is strength.

Being able to fluidly adapt your approach or work style – without discarding your authentic self – helps you deal with a broader range of circumstances and personalities in your life and career; a bit like the flexible trees that are more able to withstand the storms because they can bend and sway with the wind. But ultimately, if the job or organisation you’re in doesn’t match your values and aspirations or diminishes your happiness, doing something about it is self-leadership in action.

You are the one who must decide what’s important to you and who/how you want to be in your career, and go about your work and your life accordingly.

Aside from the many cocaine dealers in life constantly touting their wares to entice us into a career of eventual mediocrity, many of us struggle to embody effective self-leadership because we want to eat the ripe, juicy fruit without cultivating the plant that bears the fruit.

I was one of those. Before I embraced my architect responsibilities.

Be your own dealer, an architect of success

What about you?

Make a commitment to yourself. And keep it. Because you acknowledge that your career is important to you, and you’re determined to make a success of it; because your career dreams matter.

And no matter how many times you “fail” at practising or how “hard” it seems, keep trying.

Persistently.

And consistently.

The more you keep trying, the more you amplify your chances of success – it’s always the same with creating or embracing new habits, thinking patterns or behaviours: the more you practise, the more ingrained the habit becomes.

Making a commitment as such and giving it your all – despite the myriad cocaine dealers around you – is another example of self-leadership in action.

But examples and tips only impart their wisdom and benefit when you apply them, to equip and empower yourself to boost your career success.

As you make progress on your career journey, you must be clear on what your own definition of that “success” is. Your career success shouldn’t be defined by or measured against what others do or achieve. You should be more influenced by your own desires, convictions, actions and results than by the opinions or attainments of other people.

Other people are not living your life, dreaming your dreams or experiencing your career. You are.

And other people may never know the power of the magic inside you. You will.

Self-leadership is about discovering your inner magic and harnessing it for your success. It demands knowing more about your true self – how you tick and how to get the best out of you. That knowledge will help you achieve your career dreams when you exploit it.

You have what it takes to achieve the success you want in your career. Don’t let anyone tell you different; not even yourself.

Abridged excerpt from Career Dreams to Career Success by Sigi Osagie © EPG Solutions Limited 2023

Adapted version published as “How’s Your Self-Leadership?” in Supply Chain Management Review, 2 March 2023