Self-improvement strategies to become a better leader

Back in my corporate days, I wasn’t always good at hiding my disappointment or dissatisfaction. It’s awful to think back on it, but I just couldn’t seem to help myself. I lacked the ability to properly manage my emotions.

The ability to self-manage is a component of emotional intelligence. Think of the leader who loses his temper with colleagues, or appears to lack integrity or ethics, the one who doesn’t take responsibility when things don’t go well, and the person who shows up unprepared for meetings. Or even the one who wears their emotions all over their face. While perhaps showing disappointment isn’t the greatest of management sins, it has a ripple effect that can disengage and demotivate a team, and hamper your ability to lead. I know that now but I wish I had understood it then.

We’ve all had some experience of these behaviors and perhaps, even been the perpetrator, so you probably understand that a lack of self-management can be limiting. Yet the types of leaders we need to take us through the pandemic and beyond are resilient, creative, and innovative, and take the initiative to adapt to changing circumstances. These are all traits associated with strong self-management.

If you recognize yourself as someone who could stand to control their emotions a bit better, improve self-discipline, or be more dependable, there are many ways to strengthen your self-management muscle. Here are some of them.

Self-control and self-discipline

Explore your triggers. Notice what causes negative reactions from you and keep a journal of them. Think about why these particular things have the effect they do. For example, are there themes that emerge that you can tie to a significant event in your life? Once you build awareness around your triggers, you are more likely to recognize them before you inappropriately react.

Solicit feedback. Ask employees, peers, and managers regularly. It doesn’t always have to be formal. A simple, “How am I doing?” when asked often, offers people the opportunity to offer their impressions. Your bigger challenge is to let your defenses down and listen openly, with an ear to improve.

Choose how to respond. Take a breath. Take time to consider the intention behind whatever it is that you are reacting to.


Find the opportunity. Instead of concentrating on the bad news or the negative in a situation, see what opportunities may be hiding in it. For example, having a remote team may have upended your plans for team bonding, which had been a priority. So, instead consider how can you work within those parameters to achieve bonding opportunities as good, or even better.

Adopt a growth mindset. Failures can become learning opportunities with this perspective. When something goes badly or not-as-planned, take the opportunity immediately after to debrief with yourself and others, what changes should be made to ensure future success.

Maintain perspective. If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that there is a lot that gets in our way that is outside of our control. Stop wasting time there and instead, focus on the things that are within your control to change and take action on those.

Be flexible. Understand that things change and plan in advance for what a Plan B and C might look like.


Know your reputation. Your reputation and character serve as a model for others. If you don’t what that is, or aren’t sure, consider using a 360-feedback assessment to uncover potential blind spots. You can’t change what you don’t know.

Be consistent. Stick to your values and beliefs in all aspects of your life. Always feel that you are doing the right thing. You will feel better and others will know where you stand.

Own your mistakes. Sharing them openly, as in the debrief mentioned above, or as an illustrative story, helps others see your strength and vulnerability, as well as providing opportunities for others to learn from them.

Have compassion. Especially now, it is important to see your employees and teammates and whole people with responsibilities outside of those you assign them. Ask people how they are doing and listen openly to what they tell you.


Change what isn’t working. Another lesson from the pandemic: life can change on a dime. It does us no good to do things just because that’s always the way they have been done. Especially now, it’s important to consider how to do it better. If some of your processes are feeling like putting a square peg in a round hole, stop forcing it and consider another, better way.

Be open to new ideas. Don’t fall in love with an idea–especially your own. Take the time to explore others before you toss them aside.

Challenge yourself to move past fear. For any risk you are taking, ask yourself “What is the worst that can happen?” As Albert Einstein said, “Failure is success in progress.”

With focus and conscious effort, we can all do better at managing our thoughts, emotions, and our actions. When we develop this discipline and continue toward mastery, not only are we more likely to achieve our personal objectives, be happier and more content, but we might also just become more inspiring, innovative leaders for the people in our lives who need us right now.

Amy Kan is a certified leadership coach who helps organizations function better by increasing employees’ emotional intelligence to improve the way they communicate with each other.

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