Meet Paul. Paul works as a controller, filling his days with reporting, number crunching and administrative tasks. His boss has other plans for him. Five years from now Paul’s tasks will largely be done by an AI-powered algorithm. Paul’s job will be to master the field – coach clients and team members, improve data quality, and solve the problems the data presents. Paul is blissfully ignorant about this. Today, he finds comfort in the slow, steady routine of his work. He relaxes by playing mobile games, engaging in heated Twitter discussions or watching the latest on Netflix. His spouse complains about his digital habits – says he gets drawn in and can’t stop.

Paul’s story captures the paradox in our modern world: employees are expected to be more autonomous, at the same time as technology is trying to take away our autonomy as consumers. Forecasts indicate that self-leadership will be a key skill of future employees. But what is it, and why do we need it?

“technology is trying to take away our autonomy as consumers”

Modern technology is stripping away our self-leadership

The modern human operates at the whim of technological giants. Whether we admit it or not, we’re living in an increasingly passive, reactive state, getting sucked into engaging but often pointless digital distraction.

The average smartphone user checks her device every 6.5 minutes. We get interrupted on average every 3 minutes and 5 seconds. Half of Millennials say they worry about the effects of social media on their physical and mental health, yet only 1 in 5 turn off notifications for social media apps.

What’s scary is that we’re becoming wired to do this. We wake up in the morning and what’s the first thing we do? We reach for our phone. With phone in hand we’re now reacting to what other people want us to do. What others want us to read, click on, react to, spend our time on.

We’re rewiring our brain to be reactive, instead of being proactive about what we want out of our day, week, life. To engage us, technology is taking away our self-leadership.


The future of work will fundamentally change knowledge work

Knowledge work is changing fast, and it’s demanding more from its human workforce. Digital devices, globally dispersed teams and a need to be ‘always on’ are adding to our cognitive load. Moreover, what we increasingly hear when talking to CEOs, CFOs, CHROs and strategy teams is some variation of the following:

“We’ll have huge changes in the next few years. Thousands of our employees will need to completely redesign their workday. We’ll do all we can to help them, but we need them to take charge of the change too. And what we’re finding is a huge mindset shift from being managed (now) to self-managing (what’s needed).”

It’s not that leaders are bemoaning their employees. Instead, the pioneers in the workplace with the ability to look beyond the next quarter are starting to wake up to the new demands on human capital.


The employee of the future needs to lead oneself

As AI will increasingly eliminate repetitive tasks from the knowledge worker’s day, tasks that in their dull repetition also provided a safe, low-effort haven, the knowledge worker’s day will fundamentally change. The future employee needs to be able to navigate more ambiguous job descriptions, fill her days with non-repetitive tasks and shift her focus from task orientation to results orientation. She’ll need to step away from processing reports on the laptop to coaching clients and team members in the field.

“Millions of employees do not feel rested, empowered, or sufficiently in control to take on this challenge. Already, more employees are feeling exhausted and burnt out than engaged.”

Simultaneously, “agile” organizational designs, internal talent markets and fluid project structures are helping organizations rethink how to respond faster to market changes.

These are enormous structural changes.

Unfortunately, workplace practices are not being updated at the same pace. Millions of employees do not feel rested, empowered, or sufficiently in control to take on this challenge. Already, more employees are feeling exhausted and burnt out than engaged.
Navigating the future of work requires a ‘meta life skill’ no one really teaches you: self-leadership.


The idea of managing yourself is not new – but it’s hardly developed

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” wrote Aristotle.

“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” said Lao Tzu.

The iconic management thinker Peter F. Drucker’s Harvard Business Review article “Managing Oneself” has become a modern classic. In it Drucker outlined five core questions everyone should answer:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. How do I work?
  3. What are my values?
  4. Where do I belong?
  5. What can I contribute?

But apart from the wise words and inspirational quotes, self-leadership has never truly been a focus in management research. Management literature has mostly focused on leadership – how to influence, inspire and lead others to where you want to go. And good leadership is indeed important. But the focus on leadership has also instilled the opposite: the idea that we need to be led. That the only thing missing from our life is a good leader under whom we can thrive and succeed.

Yet, the future of work will demand not only great leadership, but stellar self-leadership.

“the focus on leadership has also instilled the opposite: the idea that we need to be led”

So what is self-leadership?

I’d describe self-leadership as something along these lines:

Purposefully advancing towards meaningful results, by managing both what you do and what you don’t do. All the while optimizing your long-term human potential – both at work and at home.

Self-leadership is the sum of a few core skills:

  • Purpose: Having a clear personal and professional “Why?” that directs your behavior
  • Prioritization: The ability to recognize what will truly move the needle, and the courage to de-prioritize everything else
  • Results-focused execution: The street smarts to quickly get to a rough answer, balanced with an ability to focus, get into flow and see things through to completion
  • Learning to learn: The humility and wisdom to realize you’re never ‘ready’, and that life-long learning is the new normal
  • Personal energy: Managing your personal energy through rest, recovery and self-compassion to build a balanced, resilient and healthy life

I didn’t say this would be easy. In fact, I warmly invite differing opinions about the definition or the core skills of self-leadership.

One thing is clear though: if you wish to join the group of talent that organizations of the future will look for, then mastering yourself is a fantastic place to start.


– Nora, Co-Founder and COO of Fifth Corner Inc., creators of YOU-app