The current political situation in the UK means there is going to be a lot of chat and analysis over the next few weeks on what makes a good leader. From all the research I did for The 10 Pillars of Success here is why I think good leadership needs to be based around Autonomy.

We all want to have choices and to feel that our voice is heard. When we do, our motivation and wellbeing increase and our performance improves. Autonomy fulfils an innate need to feel that we are acting of our own volition so we can accept the consequences of our actions.

There are three different aspects to autonomy:

1.     The belief that we are in control of our actions.

2.     Freedom from being pressured by others to do things.

3.     The flexibility to make choices.

In work, higher levels of autonomy tend to result in increased job satisfaction because we feel more responsible for the quality of our work. And with job satisfaction, we are more likely to be loyal to our employers and less likely to want to move elsewhere.

Leaders who create autonomy-supportive environments offer as much choice as possible, provide explanations, ask after others, encourage problem-solving, have wide decision-making, give opportunities for taking the initiative, provide constructive feedback and refrain from taking control, criticizing or punishing.

Autonomy-supportive leadership though is more than just giving people a choice and a voice – it is about offering authentic leadership which involves being a role model for behaviour, helping others generate confidence, offering feedback, giving social support, treating people as
individuals and sharing relevant knowledge.

Authentic leaders have high self-awareness and are able to see their own and others’ moral perspectives so when they process information it takes in a wide range of views so, instead of feeling coerced, everyone feels they are working towards achieving a shared purpose.

Leaders still lead – they can set strategies and boundaries but do so alongside clear reasoning. With this clear purpose it is more easily accepted and, as a result, more likely to happen

Finally, in an autonomy-supportive environment, it is essential to incorporate constructive feedback. This needs to:

1.     Give reasons for change

2.     Consider the person’s perspective

3.     Offer choices for resolution

4.     Avoid using controlling or judgemental language

5.     Focus on behaviours rather than performance.


We have seen studies highlighting how well this works. A great study from 2012 Paralympic Games saw some Korean national team coaches asked to create an autonomy-supportive environment. Their athletes not only reported feeling better connected to their coaches and teammates but won significantly more medals.

So how to be a great leader…

  • Show appreciation
  • Delegate not just work but the potential outcomes by offering full ownership of areas
  • Set clear explanations
  • Start from a place of trust (don’t make people earn it)
  • Always model best practice.