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I read my first leadership book in 2009 and quickly became obsessed with the subject.

The Big Idea: As I read, I kept coming across a central theme from the authors and mentors I followed—All great leadership begins and ends with personal leadership. (The term self-leadership is often used synonymously).

The following quotes got my attention….

“All leadership begins with self-leadership.” –John Maxwell

“Self-leadership always comes before team leadership.” –Daniel Harkavy

“The most difficult person you will ever lead is yourself.” –Bill George

I wondered, what is personal leadership?

How do you define it?

“Self-leadership is the practice of intentionally influencing your thinking, feeling and actions toward your objective” (Bryant and Kazan, 2012).

Peter Drucker—the father of modern management—called self-leadership “being the CEO of your own life.”

I’ve spent the last 10 years looking for the best science-based tools for personal leadership—and applying them to my life—and I will be sharing them in this series.

Let me give this disclaimer—I am no self-leadership guru.

My journey toward self-leadership was born mostly out of desperation, making a fool of myself, and many mistakes. I am a slow learner and have needed to return to the principles more times than I can count.

But I can think of no way better to begin 2021 than a series on The Pillars of Personal Leadership.

Why is personal leadership essential?

According to John Maxwell, there are two reasons:

  1. First, truly great leaders are in short supply throughout the world and we desperately need more of them. We need them to mentor the leaders of the future.
  2. Moreover, the first law of leadership is that people do what people see (The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell). Actions are more powerful than words. This applies to your teams, your children, and your friends and family. More is caught than taught. Example is the best way to influence people.

The Pillars

The following is a list of the topics and research that we will cover in this series.

Most people I know never learned about these things in their upbringing, and they are strikingly absent from any educational curriculum.

This is surprising given that they are skills that we desperately need to in order to be successful and fulfilled.

Here they are:

Identifying my life purpose and developing a vision for my life. The personal leadership journey begins with having a clear definition of a successful life and living your priorities. Research even shows having a sense of meaning and purpose can dramatically effect your mental and physical health. People who know their life purpose persist through seasons of struggle and suffering. A sense of purpose keeps us alive and driven. Compelling leaders know who they are and where they are going.

Build great habits that support my life purpose and vision. Leading habit expert James Clear says “success is the product of daily habits.” Try to imagine personal or professional success with bad habits. Not going to happen! We must spend a great deal of time building great habits that support our life vision. Good or bad habits compound over time and can make or break you.

Take the long view. Nearly anything in life worth doing is difficult and takes time. In our instant quick-fix culture we are losing the ability to devote ourselves to the sustained effort of building a life well-lived. It takes decades, and can’t be microwaved. And it builds grit.

Knowing and using my greatest strengths. Research shows that people who know and use their strengths are 8 times more productive and 3 times as likely to have an excellent quality of life. I can’t imagine a strong leader that doesn’t know and use their greatest gifts at home and in the workplace.

Effective behaviors with money. Money expert Dave Ramsey, a hero of mine, says “you either learn to manage money or the lack of that ability will manage you for the rest of your life.” This one skill should be part of every human’s education. Bad habits with money can ruin almost every area of life—marriage, our children’s future, legal problems, a business, friendship, stress, anxiety, depression, contentment, the ability to realize our life dreams, retirement, and even result in suicide. The crushing weight of debt is something our culture has normalized to an insane degree.

Learning from setbacks and failures (Growth Mindset). Can you imagine a great leader that doesn’t use failures to learn and grow? Neither can I. We need the ability to persist and adjust our course. We must develop the ability to respond well to setbacks in life.

Relationship and marriage skills (Emotional Intelligence). Without the ability to love well, show grace, listen, and embrace humility—you are unlikely to make and keep close relationships. And research is crystal clear that relationships make life worth living. Shouldn’t we be teaching more emotional intelligence in school since research shows this to be a vital part of life happiness and success throughout our lives? Our society still largely worships the intellect while overlooking emotional intelligence.

Invest in parenting tools. In high school my friend’s crazy dad used to rant that people should have to take a parenting class when they have kids. Now I know what he meant. Somehow, I thought you just have a child and suddenly know what to do right? Boy was I wrong! There are some amazing parenting tools out there and I would be lost without them. If you have kids—take the time to invest as early as possible. You will never regret it.

Take responsibility for my health. What is life without your health? The body is the primary source of energy, focus, and stamina. We must take responsibility for preventable health issues. This includes physical and emotional health by the way.

Cultivate self-awareness. All of us have blind spots and it’s well worth the time to understand ourselves better. I can’t imagine a great leader with terrible self-awareness. Think The Emperors New Clothes! Understanding our helpful and harmful inner voices is a big part of this process.

Addressing my weaknesses and addictions. Every person has flaws and addictions, some more problematic than others. Some personal issues can ruin decades of leadership legacy. Don’t ignore these.

Picking solid mentors and friends. Research shows that our social environment is one of the most powerful factors in shaping our behavior. If you weren’t blessed with a wonderful social environment growing up, take the time to design the social environment you want as an adult. Be highly intentional about this. We become who we look at and spend the most time with.

Harness the awesome power of morning routines. What could happen if you started most days of your life with healthy food, a focus on your highest priorities or being your best self, exercise, prayer, or meditation? A great morning routine can help you set your true north every day.

Take a look at the list of personal leadership skills above and commit to investing in the one or two areas you need most in 2021.

More research and action steps in the weeks ahead.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested Resources


  1. Read the rest of the series!
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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