Four ways to build your leadership from within

“The height of a man's success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment. […] He who cannot establish dominion over himself will have no dominion over others.” So said Leonardo da Vinci.

The best leaders are first of all capable of leading themselves. Have you ever thought about that … how leadership starts with leading yourself? Just as a word spoken from your own heart and voice has so much more power than a word read aloud from a book, so too the power for leadership comes from within.

Leading yourself means having a vision for your life, and then setting out resolutely in that direction. It means having the discipline and self-control to persevere long after others have fallen away. Here are some tips for how you can develop the kind of self-control that can make you a more successful leader. 

Practice Patience

The Ancient Greeks taught that every virtue, including patience, is a mean or midpoint between two extremes. Impatience would be a deficiency of patience, while an overabundance of patience would be procrastination — and I have certainly tried both these with poor results. To become a patient person means finding the right balance between pushing too fast and putting things off till tomorrow, and doing so repeatedly, until patience becomes a habit, or a virtue.

To take a practical example, ask yourself: Do you reply to emails patiently? Do you send hasty emails while multitasking on a phone call with someone else? Do you take far too long to respond in a timely manner to others? Patience requires thoughtfulness and care. Practicing virtues like this leads to an increasing sense of self-control and mastery over your life.

Follow a balanced schedule

The best way to not waste time is to follow a schedule — which also helps you grow in self-control. (This isn't easy. I cannot tell you how often I want to check email or jump online when I really need to stick to what I’m meant to be doing). If you are able to avoid wasting your own time, then you will be the sort of leader who doesn’t waste other people’s time. This contributes to greater productivity all around. Maintaining a schedule is the surest way to have time for everything you need and want to do in a day.

Carl Honore got a wake-up call to slow down when he realised he was rushing through bedtime stories with his son. Do you ever find you rush the things that matter most, and take too long over the things that matter little? I repeatedly observe that the very best leaders are ‘ruthless’ with their schedule (and not ruthless with people). They maximise every minute for its intended purpose and are fully present to the task at hand. And one very simple tip to get you started: start meetings on time … and secondly have an agreed end time. Starting and ending meetings on time shows enormous respect for yourself and for others.


Have you noticed how hard it can be to carve out time for looking after yourself when everyone else wants you to take care of them? Taking care of your health and wellbeing is an important aspect of self-mastery. Again, one of the traits I notice in the very best leaders is that they prioritise their health. You can find them in the gym or the pool, getting in some form of exercise every day. I once heard of an overweight man with chronic health problems who put himself under such immense pressure in the office that he was unable to make time to see the doctor. How effective do you imagine he was at work? Do you think habits like this are sustainable?

Furthermore, you cannot separate your mind from your body. i.e. there is a link between your physical and mental wellbeing. Your health habits have consequences for your productivity. Although it may seem strange, managing and limiting what you eat and drink actually increases your moderation and discretion at work. In other words, as you learn to exercise control over your appetite, you learn to exercise control over other actions.

Conduct your own performance review

If you want to be truly productive, then you must not abandon yourself in the busyness. Having dominion over yourself means being able to practice adequate self-criticism. Do you take time to review not only the decisions you have made, but the manner in which you made them? Do you reflect on whether your leadership is human-centred and not treating people as a means to an end? Do you take time to notice poor conduct and seek to correct it as soon as possible?

Self-examination, goal-setting, and practicing gratitude are three additional elements you may want to include in your personal performance reviews. Is it time to implement a quarterly and annual personal performance review? You will find the person in the mirror is both self-aware and brutally honest.

Self-leadership is one of the foundations to successful leadership. It comes with practice, and is based in some very simple habits. And when people see the way you care for yourself they will draw conclusions about the way you might care for them. While you may not always lead others, you can always lead yourself.