How to Develop a Leadership Philosophy that Inspires
Think about the most successful leaders in the world, past and present. If you were to compare them with inefficient leaders, the difference wouldn’t necessarily come from their skills. The more important factor would be how the successful leaders would be able to provide you with a clear and defined approach to how they lead other people: their leadership philosophy.
In this guide, we’ll define what leadership philosophy is and the benefits of having one. We’ll explore the idea of publishing your statement and provide you the four steps required for creating a leadership philosophy to guide your leadership.
WHAT IS A LEADERSHIP PHILOSOPHY?
The combination of leadership and philosophy might sound rather odd. On the face of it, the terms don’t seem to have much in common. So, what does leadership philosophy mean? To understand it, it’s a good idea to first examine the two words separately, as it’ll allow you to understand how they can fit together to provide you with guidance in leadership.
The definition of philosophy
When you think about philosophy, you’ll probably first think about some of the greatest thinkers of our time, such as Voltaire, Plato and Descartes. Furthermore, you probably haven’t thought about using philosophy in your everyday life and the concepts and ideas might sound a little bit difficult to comprehend. But as one the oldest disciplines in the world, philosophy has plenty to offer and it’s part of our everyday experience whether we consciously think about it.
The word philosophy literally translates to “the love of wisdom”. The Oxford Dictionary defines philosophy as, “a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behavior”. Indeed, the guiding idea of philosophy is to live a good life. It’s about striving for expertise and personal as well as collective fulfillment. Philosophy could be seen as the personal foundation or belief in human nature; for working to live your life to the fullest. Through philosophy, you create a system of thought to support your journey and obtain the guiding principles to use for action or non-action.
Watch the intriguing video by the School of Life to understand why philosophy matters to all of us.
The definition of leadership
What about leadership’s definition? Just like field of philosophy with its multiple thinkers and theories, leadership has a number of definitions. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the essence of leadership is “the action of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the ability to do this”. But as mentioned, the definitions have evolved out of this technical view, with different people viewing the topic through a slightly different viewpoint.
At its core, leadership is about the ability to influence other people and to create a movement towards a specific objective. Having a vision to which the team moves forward to is crucial. Furthermore, the emphasis is on inspiration because leadership is not the same as bossing someone around to do what you want. A leader inspires through his or her vision and motivates by leading by example rather than telling and intimidating a desired action.
The components of a leadership philosophy
The above definitions might already help you understand the connection between leadership and philosophy. When you combine philosophy, the guiding principles, and leadership, which is the model behavior for inspiring others, you create a theory or an attitude, which provides the norms for behavior and action. The definition is brought to life with four key components, which are:
- A theory – The way you define leadership and what’s it about.
- An attitude – Your mindset in regards of approaching leadership.
- Guiding principles – The principles and values you hold dear when you are thinking about leading others.
- Behavior – The behaviors you showcase in your journey to reach the desired results and outcomes.
You could view leadership philosophy as a compass – it helps define your expectations, your values and provide the roadmap for actions. With a clear leadership philosophy, you create a focused thought system surrounding your leadership, and you define the behaviors and attitudes you want to cultivate in yourself, but also in others. Leadership doesn’t just provide focus for you personally, but it can allow the people around you to know what to expect from your leadership.
Examples of leadership philosophies
Just as there are differences in what philosophers think and divergence in how leadership is defined, leadership philosophies also come in a number of different flavors and styles. Since the framework is based on personal values, leaders can approach it from different angles. There are plenty of options to choose from, but we’ve selected three unique frameworks to provide you an idea of the divergence.
Laissez faire leadership philosophy
Democratic leadership philosophy
Autocratic leadership philosophy
You can use these generalized models as guidance for defining your own leadership philosophy. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t try to copy a specific leadership philosophy. While learning about other philosophies can be a solid way to identify useful qualities, you need to adopt an approach that comes from your heart. Later on in the guide, we’ll provide you with a systematic guide to drawing your unique leadership philosophy.
WHY SHOULD YOU HAVE A LEADERSHIP PHILOSOPHY?
Leadership philosophy has a foundational element to it. The different components included create a strong basis on which to build on and take your leadership forward. You are better-equipped to lead and to succeed in your leadership with a leadership philosophy due to three core benefits: character, consistency and collaboration.
Drafting a leadership philosophy will provide clarity and focus in your character. Character matters because it influences your everyday decision-making and communication with other people. Without a proper understanding of your character and the traits you truly value, you are more likely to fall into bad habits and to let emotions control you.
By making a conscious decision with the help of a leadership philosophy, you outline the characteristics you want to strive for and which you value in other people as well. In a way, you become better at controlling your behavior and you strengthen the qualities required of a successful leader.
The above benefit directly relates to the second advantage of creating a leadership philosophy: consistency. The most important aspect of the philosophy is setting out and defining your values and objectives.
Once you define these, you immediately create more consistency to your behavior and actions. You have guidelines, which help you make decisions and take action. You’ll always use the same defining values at the heart of your decision-making. Let’s assume your leadership philosophy is defined by sustainability.
Whenever you are faced with a decision, you will evaluate the options based on how they relate to the value of sustainability – Will it hinder or enhance it? This assures your actions and behaviours are consistent. You don’t flip-flop from one value to another, but you stick to your principles.
Leadership always requires a level of collaboration. Since you need followers to voluntarily to follow you, you can’t expect to achieve much without an understanding and focus on teamwork. Getting along with people will become much easier if you have a clear leadership philosophy to follow.
Among the things you need to define with your philosophy is your approach to collaboration. The framework requires careful consideration of engagement, communication and accountability. Defining these, you create more consistency and improve your chances of more meaningful collaboration.
People will know what your values are, they understand your approach to teamwork and thus they feel more comfortable because you follow these well-defined patterns of behavior. Essentially, people can trust you because they don’t need to constantly be on their toes.
Overall, leadership philosophy will provide clarity to your leadership. Business strategist and author John Spence has written a good blog post on the topic and in it, he gave a powerful example of the benefits of a leadership philosophy. He used the famous quote by Walt Disney to make a point about why successful leaders need to define the framework for action.
The quote says, “When values are clear decisions are easy.” Spence flipped it around stating, “When values are not clear decisions are difficult.” By defining your leadership philosophy, you clarify your decision-making by enhancing your focus on the values and actions that truly matter.
PUBLISHING YOUR LEADERSHIP PHILOSOPHY
My Philosophy of Leadership is to surround myself with good people, who have ability, judgment and knowledge, but above all, a passion for service. – Sonny Perdue (American Politician)
We will outline the four steps to developing a leadership philosophy in the next section, with one of the steps involving writing down your ideas. Before providing you with the format for your written philosophy, we are going to explain why having a published leadership philosophy matters.
As you’ll see in the next section a written leadership philosophy statement can be useful in getting to the heart of your true values and ideas. By having a written statement, you are sure to have a reminder of the ideals you want to be pushing towards. But it can be more beneficial to have the leadership philosophy published or at least shared with a few people because it increases your accountability.
If you are the only one aware of your leadership principles, you don’t need to worry about others calling you out on doing something against your values since no one has knowledge of them. On the other hand, if you are loosing your sense of direction, a person who has seen your leadership philosophy statement can nudge you back in the right direction. The objectives you want to deliver and the values you want to keep at the heart of your leadership will be known. Even the knowledge that people have access to your statement or your closest friends or mentors know it can be enough to keep you focused on following your path.
Aside from accountability, publishing your leadership philosophy will provide another major benefit: the ability to reflect. While the philosophy must naturally be built around your actual values and objectives you want to achieve, bouncing these ideas with another person can provide an invaluable angle to your thinking. The ability to reflect on your ideas and to go them through with another person can add ideas to your thinking you hadn’t thought about before. The way you see yourself will always differ slightly from the experience of others and you can learn a great deal about your characteristics by asking questions from others.
If you share your leadership philosophy, you’ll be able to reflect on your ideas from a completely different perspective. The feedback can be useful in ensuring your philosophy is the best roadmap for you to move forward. Don’t worry about the feedback being negative; a well-constructed leadership philosophy is sure to inspire others. Overall, the idea behind publishing or sharing your leadership philosophy is all about feedback. If you are criticized consider the words carefully and think whether there is some truth to them.
How to publish your leadership philosophy? There are different ways to go about it. You could naturally share with a few close friends or colleagues and ask their opinions. If you have a leadership mentor or a coach, then it’s a good idea to talk about the statement with them. But you could go further than that and have your leadership philosophy on your personal website. This could potentially be a good idea even in terms of career progression, as future employers might get a better understanding of what your leadership looks like.
Finally, don’t use publishing the statement just for feedback, ensure you have someone to keep a check on you to ensure you are following your values and objectives.
THE STEPS TO DEVELOPING A LEADERSHIP PHILOSOPHY
Hopefully, the above would have convinced you about the importance of having a leadership philosophy. We’ve talked about the characteristics of the framework, but how do you develop it? Here are the four steps you need to take in order to draft a proper leadership philosophy, which will guarantee you succeed as a leader.
Step 1: Define your values and priorities
The first, and perhaps the most important part of the process is defining your values and priorities. You need to look deep inside you to discover the values you want to highlight and which you think make leaders great. You need to be able to answer the following questions as part of this step:
- What are the values I think are the most important in life and business?
- What are my personal strengths and weaknesses when it comes to values and behaviors?
- What do I feel are the priorities of a leader?
But how do you define the core values and priorities? It’s easy to create a list of things you think are important, but you need to dig deeper when it comes to a leadership philosophy. First, you need to actually understand why you think a specific value has value. Second, you can’t have a list of 20 values as this doesn’t truly clarify your position, but instead, you must focus on just a few core priorities. Entrepreneur and author Kevin Daum has written a great post on Inc. on how to define your values. Daum suggests taking the following steps:
- Identifying the following moments from your life and describing them in detail:
- Three greatest accomplishments
- Three greatest moments of efficiency
- Three greatest failures
- Three greatest moments of inefficiency
- Consider the above moments and examine the possible common themes between them.
- Using these common themes, identify the advice/tips you would give yourself. For example, if you find yourself avoiding conflict situations, your advice might be “Don’t walk away from difficult situations.”
- Refine your advice into a value. For instance, the above advice could become “Confront difficulties”
Furthermore, once you have these core values and themed outlines, it’s auspicious to take a moment to define them properly. Let’s say you realized ‘authenticity’ is a value you cherish. Define what you mean by it by writing down a few sentences. You can use the formula:
“Authenticity to me means…”
You can do this with all of your values, whether the value is ‘communication’, ‘family’, or ‘competitiveness’. It is definitely worthwhile doing this all on paper because it will help you better communicate your ideas to yourself.
When you’ve selected your values, you need to prioritize them further. If you have around 3-7 values selected, you should consider which ones resonate the most with you or which you think are the most essential in terms of leadership. An effective way to prioritize your values is by comparing them with each other. You can do it by simply taking two values, such as ‘authenticity’ and ‘respect’, and make the following statements with your chosen values:
- Authenticity but NO respect
- Respect but NO authenticity
Would you pick the first or the second sentence? The value you choose is the one you rank as more important. You can do this prioritization with all of your values by comparing them against each other. You should eventually have a value on top that beat all the others in comparison.
Step 2: Define the desirable outcomes you want to achieve
As well as defining your values, you also need to examine the outcomes you wish to achieve as a leader. In order to do this, you need to study the outcomes you want to achieve in the light of your chosen values. First, you should identify the goals for your leadership and the possible operational goals your organization is looking to achieve.
What are the actions you want to or should achieve as a leader? An auspicious way to set goals is by using the SMART method, described in the image below:
Furthermore, once you’ve identified the objectives, you need to outline and write down the actions required to achieve these goals. The actions can range from finding tools to motivate your team to enhance innovation.
When you have the goals defined, you must reflect on the ways your values relate to and impact these objectives. You can do this by answering the following questions:
- How do my values support the key goals of leadership? Remember leadership was about influencing others to follow your vision. You need to pick each value and examine how it would help inspire others and move you closer to your vision. If you value ‘honesty’, then you want to consider how it is demonstrated in influential leadership.
- How do my values support the operational goals? You should consider the same in terms of the specific organizational objectives you’ve identified.
- How can my values strengthen the actions required to achieve the objectives? Look at each action and consider the different ways your values would have a positive impact on it. ‘Honesty’ could be seen as a way to strengthen trust, which in turn would boost motivation, for example.
- How do my values show in the way I communicate with my teams? Think about the above and the positive or negative impact your values, actions and objectives will have on the team. You want to identify the routes that uphold your values, but create a meaningful partnership with your followers.
- What are the behaviors and actions I expect from my followers? Your followers don’t necessarily have to subscribe to the exact same values as you do or prioritize the values the same way. Nonetheless, you need to consider the behaviors and actions, which are in conflict with the objectives you want to achieve as a leader and as an organization, and the behaviors, which are not sustainable in terms of your own values.
The above helps you to clarify what your leadership philosophy should look like in action. It makes the values turn into concrete examples in terms of behaviors and actions.
Step 3: Write down your leadership philosophy
With the above steps concluded, you can start putting your leadership philosophy on paper. We briefly mentioned the importance of having a written statement in the previous section. Writing down your philosophy helps clarify your ideas and makes it all just a bit more concrete. It can improve your focus and help you keep yourself more accountable, since you can always go back and read what you’ve created.
To help you write down your leadership format, we propose using the format below, although you can always just write a document in your own style. The format is based on the four core elements of leadership philosophy: theory, attitude, principles and behavior.
Theory: I believe in _________________.
Write the specific elements of leadership you believe are at the heart of being a good leader; the values you prioritize. An example sentence could be: I believe in confronting issues head-on is the key to better communication.
Attitude: My thoughts will ___________ and my words will ______________.
These sentences refer to the attitudes you want to foster in the workplace; the example you want to set with your own attitude. The aim is to focus on the attitude you think will boost your success as a leader and help to achieve the objectives you’ve set out. You might say, “My thoughts will focus on finding solutions and my words will be based on honesty and integrity.”
Principles: I will lead by/with ____________.
The focus is on writing down the guiding principles you will use as part of your leadership. These are the top priorities to you as a leader; the principles you won’t negotiate on and which you’ll consider each time you make decisions. You’ll most likely end up writing a few of these and an example sentence might be: I will lead by understanding and embracing change and how situations and people can change over time.
Behavior: I expect to ___________ and ____________ in situations.
Finally, you need to write down how you will behave and react in the workplace, no matter what the situation is. The behaviors should reflect your leadership philosophy and highlight the core ideas in action. The identification of your past successes and failures during Step 1 will help with the last point. You could state, “I expect to consider the different options and listen to feedback in challenging situations.”
When it comes to drafting the document, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, keep it concise; you don’t want the document to be more than one page. You should be able to state the essence of your leadership philosophy in a few sentences. The other crucial point is to aim for clarity and this is why you also want someone else to have a look at your philosophy.
You need to define the philosophy in a manner that will help others to understand it without the need to ask multiple questions. Even if you decide not to publish it, you want at least one person to view it. Aiming for clarity will guarantee you truly understand what you are looking for with your philosophy and this will guarantee you are focused on your intentions.
Step 4: Evaluate your leadership philosophy
Finally, it’s not enough to write your leadership philosophy and continue with your daily activities; you need to actively evaluate how well you are holding on to your ideals. You must regularly reflect on how well your actions and behaviors follow your statements. Essentially, you need to hold yourself accountable.
Take time to review your leadership philosophy and go back to your previous actions. Are you practicing what you preach? What are the things you excel in and which behaviors and actions do you struggle to follow? You could look at these questions each week or every month. Write a list of the major actions you took that week; for example, consider the three successes for the weak and the three possible failures for the week.
Reflect on which principles you held on to and which actions or behaviors went against what you believe in. As you identify the actions and behaviors where you didn’t follow your leadership philosophy, consider what were the reasons leading to this situation. Why didn’t you remember your philosophy at that moment or why did you reject it? This will help you understand what are the areas where you need to work harder on or even identify the values and priorities that might be unattainable for you.
Furthermore, you should occasionally have a chat with people who know you or who work with you. Finding out what they think your guiding principles are can reveal a great deal to you about how they view you and whether your philosophy shows in action. If your followers identify values that are counter to everything you’ve written in your statement, then you are properly doing something wrong as a leader. On the other hand, if people relate values to you, which are at the heart of your philosophy, you get confirmation you are on the right path and achieving success as a leader.
As eluded to earlier, evaluating your leadership philosophy will help you realize whether your philosophy is working or not. If it’s not, you need to carefully think about the reasons behind the failure. It might be that you are simply failing in staying true and you need more time to instill these values deeper into your actions. Just continue to be more mindful of your philosophy and think more about the ways you can stick to your principles. But your failures might not be due to lack of motivation.
It could well be the actions and behaviors you chose are not truly you and do not fit into your leadership strategy. Therefore, you might have to re-evaluate each value and principle, adding in new ones and removing the ones that don’t reflect your philosophy. Successful leadership is a fluid strategy and the philosophy shouldn’t be too rigid either. As you gain more experience, both in business and in life, you will develop and grow as a person. This personal development might well change the way you approach leadership and therefore, you should be willing to make small changes to your philosophy if you feel like it.
The video clip below on self-reflection is a valuable watch because it highlights the importance of being more aware of the impact of your decisions. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind when evaluating your leadership philosophy.
Leadership philosophy is a crucial element, as it acts as the foundation for your leadership. It helps you determine the guiding principles, behaviours and actions you want to put at the heart of your leadership. By carefully considering your values, priorities and objectives, you can create a framework for effective and focused leadership.
Having a leadership philosophy creates clarity to your decision-making and your actions, which help you to inspire and to motivate the followers to support your vision. You will be a leader with a clear mission and way of operating, which makes it easier for people to respect and trust you because they will always know where you are coming from.
When it comes to drafting a leadership philosophy the key is to spend time analyzing yourself and writing down the things you believe in and value. Creating a document will ensure you are not only accountable, but can easily remind yourself to focus on the essentials. It ensures you aren’t just thinking about specific actions and behaviors, but to actually implement these in your leadership.
Leadership philosophy is often based on intuition, but also a careful examination of what your strengths and weaknesses are. It’s about finding the voice that truly speaks for you rather than pretending to subscribe to things you don’t believe in or can’t achieve.
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