What we hear from leaders that we work with in our coaching is that finding their voice through their leadership philosophy helps them feel more effective and prepared in their roles. Indeed, the research that Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have been conducting for nearly 35 years echoes that sentiment. It also provides an even more compelling reason for leaders to contemplate their leadership philosophy: when you have a clear leadership philosophy, the PEOPLE AROUND YOU are more effective, too.
Defining a Leadership Philosophy
Your leadership philosophy is the guidepost for your leadership. It’s what you believe to be true about how you should lead, what contribution you want to make to those around you. In essence, it’s how you aspire to show up as a leader.
Even if you already have a leadership philosophy, it may be worth the time to revisit it. Life changes, business changes, circumstances change, and people change. Have you changed? Working through the process we present here may help you look at your leadership philosophy through a different lens. It may validate what you already believe about your leadership and enable you to lead more confidently.
To help leaders create a philosophy of leadership in our coaching work, we use the following four-step process, focusing first on determining personal values (through a values experience, lifeline, etc.) and then writing and sharing the philosophy.
Step One: Create Your Lifeline
The first step in creating or updating your leadership philosophy is to reflect on your past. Understanding the past can help you identify themes, patterns, and beliefs that both underscore why you care about certain matters and how they have shaped who you are as a leader. Think back over your life to recall important turning points—significant events that made a difference in the trajectory of your life. Make a few notes about each moment. Write down the year in which the event occurred. List at least ten events.
Step Two: Determine Your Values
Now use your lifeline to determine your values. What common themes are woven through your life events? What are the ideals that attract you? What are the higher-order values that give meaning and purpose to your life and work? You can choose five or six values from the list below or do a web search using the key word “values” to explore a larger list.
Harmony, Effectiveness, Challenge, Freedom, Health, Decisiveness, Simplicity, Discipline, Beauty, Trust, Family, Wisdom, Communication, Honesty/Integrity, Empathy, Diversity, Growth, Happiness, Truth, Autonomy, Hope, Dependability, Productivity, Humor, Recognition, Friendship, Risk-Taking, Power, Spirituality/Faith, Creativity, Independence, Strength, Variety, Security, Competition, Achievement/Success, Love/Affection, Respect, Loyalty, Open-Mindedness, Patience, Intelligence, Competence, Equality
List the values you have identified and, in your own words, write a brief description of what each value means to you.
Step Three: Write Your Leadership Philosophy
Once you’ve determined your values and defined what they mean, you have a strong foundation for your leadership philosophy. While the values don’t have to translate one-for-one into your philosophy, they should be a springboard for what you believe about your leadership. Use this writing trick to craft your philosophy: with your personal values in front of you (including the definitions), set a timer for 8 minutes. Write with the aim of having a philosophy completed in that amount of time. Answer the question: What do I believe about my leadership?
Say it in your own words. As Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner often advise, “To find your voice, you have to explore your inner self. You have to discover what you care about, what defines you, and what makes you who you are.” You’ve already started this process in steps two and three above. Think about how your lifeline themes and values inform your leadership voice. Our advice is to start using this as your philosophy immediately. If you set it aside to “polish later,” you may not follow through. The goal is to start using this as your daily guidepost, so start with this draft and refine periodically rather than setting it aside and forgetting about it.
Special Note: Not sure what a leadership philosophy should look like? Here are two examples:
Renee’s Leadership Philosophy
Values: Freedom, Equality, Hope, Simplicity, Spirit in Place
I believe that every individual—no matter how young or old, how engaged or jaded, or how high up (or low down) in the hierarchy—wants to make a contribution to their work or to their world. They may not know it. They may not show it. But EVERYONE has a contribution to make and it’s a leader’s role – and responsibility even – to help individuals make that contribution a reality.
Bill’s Leadership Philosophy
Values: Even-temperedness, Simplicity, Competence, Candor, Family
Reduce the scars and stress leaders endure by increasing their professional competence, confidence, and engagement; help them pay it forward.
Step Four: Share and Post Your Leadership Philosophy
Your leadership philosophy only comes to life when you share it with others….
- your direct reports
- your co-workers (it’s great team building to ALL share your messages and talk about each one)
- your manager
- other colleagues integral to your work and those who are important to you personally
If you use your philosophy as a guidepost for your leadership, people will see it in your actions. However, you should also be honest and open with those you lead and share with them what is important for you as a leader.
As you share your leadership philosophy, ask yourself, does it feel authentic? How is it resonating with people? Based on the answers to these questions and feedback from others, revise your leadership philosophy as needed. Finally, post it where you can see it so you are reminded every day of what you believe.
Spending time charting out your lifeline helps to identify the themes and events that have shaped who you are as a leader and the values that have been and remain most important to you. Your life events and values help you create a leadership philosophy in your own words, your leadership voice. And finally, sharing your leadership philosophy with others helps transform it from words on paper into leadership actions.
This article first appeared in The Leadership Challenge Newsletter at www.leadershipchallenge.com. It was co-authored by Bill Mugavin, CPLP and a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge. Bill is a consultant at FlashPoint, a Global Training Partner of The Leadership Challenge committed to ensuring that leaders truly learn practical skills and improve leadership effectiveness—and that the organizations they serve see a strong return on investment. Bill can be reached at [email protected]