Self-Leadership for Expat Partners

Self-Leadership was one of these terms that I thought was meaningless management speak. “We are all leaders inside, even if you do not lead a team”- blarf, get me a bucket.

However, the term kept coming back to me.

-While I was trying to put words to why some expat partners are more able to thrive in foreign lands than others.

-While I was trying to figure out how I had reinvented myself half way across the world- and how I could replicate that in our next posting.

-While I struggled with being a “housewife with a helper,” an ambitious person without a work permit in a country where I did not speak the language- where was I going in life?

What is Self-Leadership

When I was preparing for my presentation on Self-Leadership for Expat Partners at the Families in Global Transition Conference in Bangkok last weekend, I did some research about self-leadership.

One definition by Bryant and Kazan (2012) is:

Self-leadership is having a developed sense of who you are, what you can do, where you are going coupled with the ability to influence your communication,  emotions and behavior on the way to getting there (Bryant, Kazan 2012).

Self Leadership International, set up by Andrew Bryant, summarizes it as:

“Self-leadership is the process by which you influence yourself to achieve your objectives.”       

Expat Energy_Self-Leadership

Self-Awareness, -Confidence and -Efficacy

SLI defines 3 aspects of self leadership: Self Awareness, Self Confidence and Self Efficacy:

  • Self-awareness is about knowing your intentions and values, as well as knowing what can ‘push your buttons’ and derail you.
  • Self-confidence comes from knowing your strengths and abilities. As we take actions and develop skills, we become more confident.
  • Self-efficacy is the belief that whatever comes our way, we can handle it. We can take the feedback, accept, adjust and advance. With self-efficacy we can be more creative and innovative.

Choosing Self-Leadership in Turbulent Times

As an expat partner, you are expected to show self-leadership in a time when you are literally outside of your comfort zone- ABROAD. And that isn’t easy! When we are outside of our comfort zone, there are many saboteurs popping up in our minds. Fears and doubts may plague us- Are doing the right thing? For ourselves? For our family? For our career?

Recalibrating after Transition

Moving abroad, like every big transition in life, means we have to “recalibrate” who we are and what is important to us. Our goals in life were often tied to our jobs, that we now no longer have. Our confidence came from performing well at work, but what do we do all day now? And how do we know that we will be able to make it abroad, where we have no family and friends when we arrive?


Recalibrating what is important to us and finding our footing abroad, usually takes time. Time in which we may start feeling lonely and depressed, frustrated and full of resentment against our partner, or against ourselves. Why can’t we “just be happy?” Why is it so hard sometimes to “just relax?” Instead of beating ourselves up, let’s explore our own self-leadership with kindness.

Nothing to do with Career

Please let me clarify that when I mention self-leadership, it is not just related to Career. Self-Leadership for expat partners may include career, but it is not necessary or even that important. It may also be related to realizing dreams or to being a parent. It also does not mean that you have to figure everything out by yourself. In fact, self-leadership may be finding help when you need it and to admit to our own limitations. It is about taking responsibility for yourself and your own actions, and about not blaming others, your partner or the country that you are in.

Choosing Self-Leadership

It is important to realise that we have more control over our thoughts, emotions and behavior than we often give ourselves credit for. Do we choose self-leadership or victim mode? The Circle of 8 Model by Van Harte and Lingsma, a Dutch consultancy firm, gave some good insight in this. I’ve adjusted it for the situation of moving abroad.

Expat Energy_Self Leadership


Of course, none of us is 100% a self-leader. There are always moments when we just want to move back home, hate the new country or feel defeated and deflated. But it is important to realize that you always have a choice to go back to self-leadership. During a move, we go up and down many times- it’s not called a rollecoaster for nothing. Often, we start with enthusiasm and motivation to self-lead, but after the umpteenth rejection letter for a job, or realising we do not have good friends yet, it is hard to stay positive. 

For me, I struggled a lot in the first 6 months in Brunei, until I made the choice to start loving the country. It wasn’t easy, but it worked. And I still have bad days, where I want to get on the next flight back to The Netherlands.

What is Self-Leadership to you?

Make your own definition of self-leadership. Define (by yourself, or with a friend or a coach) what are your intentions and life values. What are your strengths? What impact do you want to have on other people? Are you willing to face whatever comes your way, not hiding behind excuses? How do you want to be and what do you want to do abroad- what does self-leadership look like for you?

Margot’s Definition:

For me, self-leadership is a work in progress, but for now my definition is:

To -wherever I am in the world- make choices that promote the wellbeing of my family and myself, to develop myself personally and professionally (paid or unpaid), to learn to live with uncertainty and loss and not be held back by these, and to be grateful for the opportunities that living abroad offers. 

What is self-leadership for you?

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