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The Art of Self Leadership
Your toughest management challenge is always yourself.

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Imagine a compass north, south, east, and west. Almost every time the word leadership is mentioned, in what direction do leaders instinctively think?


Say the word leadership and most leaders' minds migrate to the people who are under their care. At leadership conferences, people generally think, "I'm going to learn how to improve my ability to lead the people God has entrusted to me."

South. It's a leader's first instinct.

But many people don't realize that to lead well, you need to be able to lead in all directions—north, south, east and west.

For example, good leaders have to lead north—those who are over you. You can't just focus on those entrusted to your care. Through relationship and influence good leaders lead the people over them. Much of what I do at Willow Creek, through relationship, prayer, and careful envisioning, is to try to influence those over me—the board and the elders.

Effective leaders also learn how to lead east and west, laterally, in peer group settings. If you don't learn how to lead laterally, if you don't know how to create win-win situations with colleagues, the whole culture can deteriorate.

The Art of Self Leadership

The Art of Self Leadership

So a leader must lead down, up, and laterally. But perhaps the most overlooked leadership challenge is the one in the middle. Who is your toughest leadership challenge?


Consider 1 Samuel 30. David, the future king of Israel, is a young emerging leader at the time. He is just learning to lead his troops into battle. He's green. But God is pouring his favor on David, and most of the time the battles go his way. One terrible day though, that pattern changes. After returning home from fighting yet another enemy, David and his men discover soldiers have attacked and destroyed their campsite, dragged off the women and children, and burned all their belongings.

This would define "bad day" for any leader! But it's not over. His soldiers are tired, angry, and worried sick about their families. They're miffed at God. A faction of his men spreads word that they've had it with David's leadership. They figure it's all David's fault, and they decide to stone him to death.

In this crisis David's leadership is severely tested. Suddenly, he has to decide who needs leadership the most. His soldiers? The officers? The faction?

His answer? None of the above.

In this critical moment he realizes a foundational truth: he has to lead himself before he can lead anybody else. Unless he is squared away internally he has nothing to offer his team. So "David strengthened himself in the Lord his God" (1 Samuel 30:6). Only then does he lead his team to rescue their families and what's left of their belongings.

David understood the importance of self-leadership. And although self-leadership isn't talked about much, make no mistake, it is a good part of the ballgame. How effectively can any of us lead others if our spirits are sagging, our courage is wavering, and our vision or commitment is weak?

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Topics:Calling, Character & integrity, Discernment, Leadership, Management, Prayer, Self-control, Spiritual Leadership, Team leadership, Vision
Filters:Church staff, Discipleship, Elder, Men's ministry, Mentoring, Pastor, Pastoral care, Women's ministry
References:1 Samuel 30, Acts 20:24

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Displaying 1–5 of 5 comments


August 25, 2010  2:11am

it is all about keeping it real =]

Kathy Curran

May 19, 2009  12:31pm

What health we can bring to EVERYONE in our circle of influence if we start with leading our selves. YES LORD - I hear You!!

Doug Smith

July 08, 2008  2:30pm

Great advice for leaders at any level -- in any organization.


July 07, 2008  11:27am

This article hit like a 2x4 to the back of the head. I have been struggling and wondering whether I am a leader or not. I have led several bible study groups and taught in the adult sunday school. I have tried to figure out why all of these opportunities have led to failure. My answer to the first question posed in this paragraph was North. That told me a lot. I am far too concerned with procedures and results. I have spent no time thinking about those whom I have been given to lead. No wonder my attempts at leadership have failed. However, I must have very good self leadership. I think about myself all the time! (To the detriment of thinking about others.)


March 25, 2008  3:53pm

What I personally find so helpful is your honesty about your own struggles. So thank you for opening your heart and allowing God to use you to lift up the leadership of His Body. This article has challenged my leadership and given me a fresh place to start from. I will now ask myself these same questions and be willing to allow God to examine my heart more than ever! Thanks again!

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