3 Reasons Why You Need A Written Leadership Philosophy

Leadership Philosophy: A Personal System of Beliefs and Principles About the Purpose and Role of Leadership

We all have a leadership philosophy. For most of us, it is subconscious and not entirely consistent. When asked about our leadership philosophy, we are often caught somewhat off-guard and respond with platitudes such as “People are our most important asset” or “Leaders lead the way”.

The truth is that it’s a challenging question to answer. It requires some honest reflection, personal awareness, and a willingness to be uncomfortable with the process. When I went through the process, It took me a couple of weeks of contemplation, revisions, and re-revisions before I got to a version that I felt was fully authentic and useful.

Below are 3 key reasons why we all need a written leadership philosophy:

1) Forces Us to Clarify Our Beliefs About Leadership

As I mentioned earlier, we all have a collection of beliefs about leadership that influences our behaviors as leaders. It’s often a hodgepodge of beliefs and visceral reactions that we have accrued from training, leading, and being led.

The main challenge is that our system of beliefs remains subconscious and unchallenged. Just as we accrue unnecessary articles in our closets and garages, we also accrue experiences and beliefs that may no longer serve us or no longer be valid in our current situation.

For example, when I went through this process years ago, I realized that I still had the subconscious belief that leaders had to have all of the answers. Intellectually, I knew that this belief was impossible and limiting. Yet, it was still there – interfering with my leadership of others and myself. When I was a young consultant, I was once coached: “If you want to test the clarity of your beliefs, put them in writing.” Until we are forced to clearly and succinctly state our beliefs, we cannot be entirely sure if they best support our current needs.

2) Provides the Insight to Help Us Align Our Beliefs With Our Actions

Once we do the hard work of clearly and concisely stating our beliefs, we can then compare how our beliefs align with our day-to-day actions. Often our espoused or aspirational beliefs do not perfectly align with our actions. For example, I once worked with a CEO who espoused his belief that leaders must be given the room to fail and to learn.

In practice, however, he micromanaged, retroactively criticized leaders’ decisions, and often publicly humiliated those who “failed”.  Intellectually, he did in fact believe that learning is often a byproduct of failure.

Unfortunately, he also had other competing beliefs that interfered with his actions.  It wasn’t until he had to go through the process of comparing his written leadership philosophy with his behaviors that he fully understood and accepted the discrepancy.

Comparing our espoused beliefs with our actions can be a painful process, but if we are fully honest with our assessment, it can also be a source of tremendous growth. For most of us, when we are faced with the dichotomy of espoused beliefs versus actions, we feel the urge to default to justifications.

I have learned from some truly great leaders that this is the time to override the urge to justify and instead become curious. The following are examples of questions that engage our curiosity: Do I truly believe what I am espousing? If yes, then what is going on that influences my behavior in this other way? If I do not truly believe what I am espousing, then what do I believe or what is the span of my beliefs in this area?

The clearer we become in our beliefs, the clearer we can be on how these beliefs are projected in day-to-day actions. Awareness is the first step for accountability and significant personal growth.

3) Establishes Clear Expectations for What Others Should Expect From Our Leadership

One of the most powerful leadership skills that I have learned is establishing clear expectations. This includes what we expect from others and what they can expect from us. Having a clear and concise leadership philosophy allows us to discuss our beliefs and principles with those who will be experiencing them first-hand. It establishes an environment where you can move beyond mere platitudes into actual behaviors that others can expect from you and/or those behaviors you expect from them.

For example, the following are three key behaviors that I expect from my team members: 1) be curious – seek to understand, 2) be proactive in helping others and the team to grow and succeed, 3) commit to results versus activity. As I share what I expect from others along with the behaviors that they can expect from me, it allows for dialogue to occur. In addition, it provides an opportunity to demonstrate consistency between my espoused beliefs and actual behavior. As a leader’s actions consistently align with her espoused views, trust and credibility accelerate.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, my first attempt at defining my leadership philosophy took me two weeks of revisions. Since then, I treat it as a living document. I periodically review my philosophy in order to allow it to evolve and be refined as I am evolving as a leader. In a future blog, I will share the approach and guiding principles that I use to create a leadership philosophy. Until then, what do you believe?