How OTs Can Build Self-Leadership

This is an excerpt from the Autumn 2021 issue of Connections.

Self-leadership is an emerging concept that encourages us to apply leadership principles, values, and practices to ourselves. It requires a high level of self-awareness, self-direction, and self-management. Taking personal responsibility for our energy, performance, wellbeing, and openness to learning ensures we function optimally and have a more positive impact on others.

Self-leadership is an intrapersonal relationship. We all have an internal relationship with ourselves that, like all relationships, has unique attributes, strengths, weaknesses, and dynamics. This intrapersonal relationship reflects how we treat and relate to ourselves.

Exceptional leaders distinguish themselves because of superior self-leadershipDaniel Goleman

In his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman points out that the best leaders place significant attention on leading themselves.

As occupational therapists, we can’t lead others if we can’t lead ourselves. Yet most of us are unaware that by actively leading ourselves, we will more positively impact our communities, clients, colleagues, and loved ones, too.

Conversely, poor self-leadership has a negative impact on ourselves, our relationships, our professional lives, and our wellbeing. It can lead us to being significantly depleted and unable to offer our best selves to our communities. At worst, it can lead us to operate below the line in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and those around us.

Positive self-leaders operate above the line. Through high-level self-care, self-awareness, and self-leadership they bring their best selves to their communities. They naturally create a climate that is psychologically safe, where relationships are built on respect, authenticity, and integrity. This forms fertile ground for a high-performing environment in which clients, colleagues, or loved ones can flourish.

Case Study: Steps to Build Self-Leadership

Samantha (not her real name) owns a very successful, large, occupational therapy private practice. Through a leadership development program, Samantha recognised how poorly she was leading herself. She ran herself into the ground, rarely switched off, felt overly responsible for everything, and continually let her battery run dry.

Consequently, she didn’t feel she was being the mother, partner, and leader she wanted to be. Although she prioritised her client community through her specialist clinical work, she lacked the emotional capacity to invest in her personal or professional communities in ways that aligned with her values.

Although she spent time with her family, she worried about how often she was preoccupied with work, and mentally and emotionally absent to them. She was concerned that she did not step back from her practice and delegate more effectively, or apply the values that inspired her practice.

She was astounded by the concept of self-leadership, having never considered how she was leading herself and the impact it was having on her communities.

Through coaching, Samantha took steps to build self-leadership in three critical ways.

1. Self-Awareness

First, Samantha focused on establishing a deeper level of self-awareness and self-acceptance. Every time we speak to ourselves, we build an internal dialogue that can either support or undermine us. Over time, this forms a template for other relationships. If we are critical of ourselves, we may be more critical of others, or more aware of their weaknesses, even if we don’t express them.

Continual self-criticism undermined Samantha’s capacity to recognise and appreciate her strengths, skills, and practice wisdom. By turning the volume down on unnecessary self-critical talk, and recognising her skills and strengths, Samantha developed a more balanced view of herself.

This helped her to significantly reduce her high self-expectations and perfectionist tendencies. She became far more relaxed, centred, and grounded in herself and her own potential.

2. Self-Direction

Samantha clarified her personal and professional values, and ensured they informed every aspect of her life. This highlighted values she was striving to fulfil in serving her community, yet were absent from interactions with herself, colleagues, and loved ones.

To bring out the best in herself, Samantha strengthened her self-direction and personal agency. She planned how to live in alignment with her values and aspirations, describing a far more balanced lifestyle that nourished her physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. She has made huge inroads into fulfilling all her occupations with greater ease.

3) Self-Management

Thirdly, Samantha self-managed her tendency to regress into old habits when stressed. Although she made considerable progress, she still needed deeper awareness of the triggers that set her back. Setbacks provided valuable lessons in how to support herself during tough times, to ensure she didn’t go backwards. This learning created sustainability.

Final Thoughts

The steps towards enhancing self-leadership will be unique to us all. One of the best approaches is to lead ourselves as we would like to be led, or would lead others. Self-leadership allows us to optimise our occupational functioning and build on our potential, strengths, values, and practice wisdom.

Positive and empowering self-leadership is a psychologically responsible and sustainable way to bring out the best in ourselves, to best support the communities we seek to serve.

About the Author

Michelle Bihary is a mental health occupational therapist, trainer, supervisor, coach, and author of Leading Above the Line: Applying Neuroscience to Build Psychologically Safe and Thriving Teams.

Michelle presents a number of CPD courses with OTA, including the upcoming  Professional & Clinical Supervision online workshop running 29-30 April 2021.


  1. Bihary, M. (2020). Leading Above the Line: Applying Neuroscience to Build Psychologically Safe and Thriving Teams
  2. Blanchard, K. (2020). Developing Self-Leaders: A Competitive Advantage for Organizations. The Ken Blanchard Companies.
  3. Bryant, A., & Kazan, A. L. (2012). Self-Leadership: How to Become a More Successful, Efficient, and Effective Leader from the Inside Out (1st ed.). McGraw-Hill Education
  4. Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (10th Anniversary ed.). Bantam


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