Leadership and Self-Determination

By Kristen Cox
Executive Director
Utah Department of Workforce Services

Throughout my career, I’ve experienced a wide range of leadership styles with a corresponding range of results. One would expect that the better leaders possessed traditional qualifications such as strong communication skills, technical competence, organizational skills, and vision.  For me, these are a given. In my opinion, however, a more important quality that makes all the difference between those who are good leaders and those who are great leaders is self-determination.

I learned the importance of self-determination as I began to lose my vision. Learning to use a cane, read Braille, interface with computers, and even doing simple things like grocery shopping all required new skills and training. Even more important were the very deliberate attitudes I needed to adopt around what blindness meant for me.  In general, society views blindness as a tragedy and event that inherently limits an individual’s potential and contribution. Carving out my own belief system around blindness was, and continues to be, a prerequisite for living the life I want to live. In essence, it requires me to determine for myself what my life can be rather than leaving that decision to others.

Self-determination has much broader application than just dealing with blindness. I find this quality in people who are deeply rooted by an inner set of values and passion. They have an inner compass which drives their behaviors, decisions, and priorities. They are empowered by their values and principles—thereby making life an opportunity to grow, learn, contribute, and serve. This paradigm shapes every aspect of their lives—including work.

Self-determined individuals understand that work is not just a place to earn a living, but is also a place to grow and learn while helping others do the same. These individuals aren’t victims. They act rather than react and thereby spend less time blaming and more time finding solutions. For them, leadership is achieved through results, trust, and a credible vision, rather than heavily relying on a title or organizational authority. People naturally gravitate to them because they are optimistic and fundamentally happy, despite challenges and setbacks. They are able to take calculated risks because they are more motivated by growth than by fear. Their worth is defined by aligning their decisions with their principles. Hence, they can make the difficult decisions even when those decisions aren’t popular.

In his book “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “It is the great man who, in the midst of a crowd, can keep with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Living by our own principles and ideals despite naysayers or challenges is a tough standard to achieve and one where I often fall short. However, self-determination is worth striving for daily and a “must have” quality for leaders within any organization.