Imagine you’re the captain of a ship.
You get to wear a fun hat and everyone calls you their leader.
Lucky for them, you’re a good leader: fair, kind, level-headed. In general, everyone on the ship thinks you’re doing a great job.
And you think so too.
But there’s a major problem — you don’t know how to navigate the ship.
Each day, you wake up, take a look at the horizon and say:
“It looks like there’s land over there. Let’s go that way!”
You repeat this, day-after-day, until supplies begin to run out. And when they’re hungry, those people who loved you don’t like you so much anymore.
Even worse, you have no way to tell if you’re getting any closer to land. You’re doing the best you can, but it feels like you’re standing in quicksand with no real way to gain any footing.
And, no matter how well-intentioned you are, a captain who doesn’t know how to navigate their ship is doomed to eventually fail.
So I have to ask:
How are you navigating your ship?
In business, we don’t have things like compasses or GPS to tell us which way to go. We have to decide that for ourselves. Most of the time, we make those decisions based on our leadership philosophy.
Your leadership philosophy is the compass you use to chart your course. It’s the guiding principles, beliefs, and vision within each of us that dictates the way we lead.
If you haven’t documented these things already, don’t worry. By the end of this post you’ll know exactly how to develop and plan out your leadership strategy to keep your business on course.
This process is non-negotiable. Here’s why:
- You can’t achieve your full potential as a leader if you don’t have certainty about your philosophy. Obstacles will pop up. Unexpected challenges are always on the way. Having this philosophy as a part of your daily mental routine will help keep you on track when you face adversity.
- The people you’re leading can tell if you have a lack of purpose or belief in what you are doing. At best, they’ll follow you hesitantly. At worst, they’ll abandon ship completely and go find another leader. To get the best out of your team, they must believe in you. They have to know who you are and what they can expect from you.
2 Elements of a Rock-Solid Personal Leadership Philosophy
Let’s look at 2 crucial elements of a rock-solid personal leadership philosophy and 2 well-known leaders who effectively embody them:
Dr. Condoleeza Rice and Coach Dabo Swinney.
Now remember, we are talking only about leadership philosophy here. This is NOT a political discussion or an endorsement of a certain college football team (because if it was, Hook’em Horns!), but rather a small examination of what two proven and respected professionals believe is necessary for effective leadership.
By the way, a huge part of leadership is being able to learn from others even when you disagree with them…or root for a different team. So with an open mind, here we go!
1. Help others become the best versions of themselves
Dr. Condoleezza Rice
Part of her well-documented leadership philosophy is giving others the best chance to become leaders themselves. Encouraging others to give their best effort tends to lead to more success.
Letting your team know what is expected of them and reminding them they can lead, grow, and move up in the organization is empowering. A great leader paints the picture for what the future of their followers could look like.
Coach Dabo Swinney
Dabo Swinney is known for demanding a lot from his players, but he does so in an effort to produce greatness.
Demanding a lot from someone can be part of an outstanding leadership philosophy if doing so is for the purpose of reaching the agreed-upon goal. Clearly communicating what you expect from others can be a great thing.
Often, people need a leader who believes in them more than they believe in themselves. And to pull that greatness out of an individual or a team often requires the leader to demand a lot — every day.
Dabo is committed to producing the best performance possible in his players. In return, his players give their maximum effort and their respect back to him.
2. Lead by example — regardless of your position
Dr. Condoleezza Rice
Dr. Rice is said to have lead by example, with integrity, through communication.
That’s a solid and succinct leadership philosophy. If she followed those three things daily and ran every potential decision through those filters, it’s reasonable to guess that doing so kept her focused and productive.
When you have a guiding philosophy like this as a leader, you give yourself the best chance to make progress every day.
Leaders who don’t have a philosophy get slowed down or often stuck because they are starting with a blank page at every decision point. If that feels familiar to you, it might be time to create or revisit your leadership philosophy.
Coach Dabo Swinney
A foundational element of Dabo’s philosophy is that leadership isn’t dependent on position.
Leadership can’t fall only to the head coach or the quarterback. It’s available to anyone on the team. Anyone in the organization. It isn’t dictated by title or salary. If you wait until you reach a certain level to exhibit great leadership skills or implement a leadership philosophy, you might wait a long time.
There was a time when Dabo left the coaching profession and worked in real estate.
The fact he was new in his company and new to an industry didn’t prevent him from approaching his job with leadership qualities every day. He gave intentional effort to perform at his best, lead by example, and help his new real estate team in any way he could.
When he went back to coaching, he wasn’t automatically a head coach. He started as an assistant and worked his way up. But he led from his assistant coach position.
He knew he could still impact the team even though he wasn’t the head coach. He didn’t let the fact that he worked under higher-paid coaches keep him from following his own leadership philosophy.
Dabo continues to preach to his players and staff that leadership must be active at every level of the organization in order for it to succeed.
There are countless examples like this from people all over the world. And I encourage you to spend some time researching leaders you admire to help you craft your personal leadership philosophy.
As you get started, here’s a 6-step process to help you craft your leadership philosophy.
How to Craft Your Leadership Philosophy in 6 Simple Steps
Fill in the blanks in the following internal desire statements
a. I will always ________, ________, ________ (list the first 3 words or phrases that come to your mind)
b. I will never ________, ________, ________ (list the first 3 words or phrases that come to your mind).
c. I hope to help others by ________, ________, _________ (list the first 3 words or phrases that come to your mind).
d. When others encounter me, my goal is for them to ________, ________, ________.
Fill in the blanks in the following external reality statements
a. The first thing my team thinks when they see me is ________, ________, ________. (For many people these answers are different than #1d above. That’s ok. Keep going!)
b. They think this because they know I am ________, ________, ________.
c. Others trust me because ________, _______, ________.
Fill in the following blanks related to your strengths and weaknesses
a. I provide the most value to a team when I am utilizing my strengths. My strengths are ________, ________, ________.
b. The team is not at its best when I am operating outside of my strengths. My weaknesses are other people’s strengths and I often need their help. My areas of weakness are ________, ________, ________
Write a few sentences that summarize Steps #1-3 in your own words. Apply it as much to your specific situation as possible. Use names, numbers, details, titles, etc.
This is for your eyes only, so don’t hold back. Don’t edit or try to make it perfect. Just write. Your personalized version might be 100 words or it might be 10 pages. Either is fine as long as you do it!
To this point, you’ve documented what is true in your life today. Now take a few minutes to vision cast for your future.
Fast forward in your mind to one year from today. Future-you is sitting exactly where you are right now, and future-you is reflecting back on the past year.
What does future-you have to say about what you’ve done in the last year to become a better leader?
What steps did you take and what did you achieve?
Why and how did you achieve it?
Who benefitted from what you did as leader?
Again, it helps to be as specific as possible. Write until you are done, however long that is, then move on to the final step.
If you’ve answered all the questions above and taken the time to put true thought into this, you should be staring at hundreds or thousands of words.
This is the first version of your personal leadership philosophy. It’s probably rough, but from the information you’ve documented so far, you will start to see a theme.
Read it several times over the next few days. Let this content sit with your brain and your soul. Come back and make changes if needed.
Once you feel settled about what you’ve written, distill the theme into something you can write on a card or piece of paper.
Place it somewhere you can see it every day.
Over time, you should be able to memorize it and recite it to yourself and others, but always keep a written copy in your desk drawer or as a bookmark.
Keep it at or near the front of your mind until it is committed to memory and then to application in your life.
Revisit this process at least once every year to make sure you’re still on track.
As your life and career progress, certain things will likely be added to your leadership philosophy. Some things might need to be revised or improved upon, so make sure you have a plan to review and update it regularly.
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