In the U.S. armed services, top-ranking officers are generally expected to craft and state their philosophy of leadership. It’s so much part of the fabric of officer training that the leadership program at the US Army War College curriculum includes a course called “The Philosophy of Leadership.” Hmmm… where was that course in your MBA program?
Creating an intentional leadership philosophy is a wonderfully reflective way to establish your authenticity as a leader, and to drive home for yourself what behaviors will support others seeing the person you intend in your philosophy. Let’s talk about the path to your leadership philosophy.
First, what do we mean by a personal philosophy? Here are some of the markers. If you don’t meet these criteria, you may have borrowed some admired traits, but you really haven’t formed a philosophy:
- It defines fundamental observable truths about yourself, and your relationship to the world and to others.
- It acts as a compass for decisions about how you behave.
- It acts as a yardstick by which you’ll judge your actions and growth.
- It imposes on you an obligation to change your behaviors when not consistent with your philosophy.
As stated in the materials for The Leadership Academy, an organization developed by military academy graduates, “it (a leadership philosophy) lets people know what you expect, what you value, and how you’ll act.”
Your leadership philosophy signals to your direct reports what you expect of yourself and of them; it signals to your peers and bosses the values that you won’t compromise, and it sets out to everyone your standards of behavior in a way that holds you accountable to them and asks of others their respect for those boundaries.
Establishing your leadership philosophy is a deeply reflective process. Here is what it is not:
- It is not once-and-done. While you will develop a strong philosophy on a well-considered first try, you will find ways in which your authenticity dictates changes over time.
- It is not a personal mission that lays out what you hope to accomplish in life; rather, it is how you will behave in the accomplishment of that mission.
How do you get to your own personal leadership philosophy? There are many paths, but some general guidance is articulated here:
- Understand clearly who you want to be. This isn’t about what we want to do; it’s about who we want to be in the world. It’s less about how we want to be perceived by others, and more about how we want to live with ourselves. There are several ways to begin to consider this:
- Identify the things you’ve most admired about people you know well and why those have been important to you; where are the themes and do they also describe you, or what you aspire to be?
- Define the conversation you hope will take place at your funeral. What will be mourned – not your accomplishments, but what characteristics of the spirit that has been taken from the world?
- Get real; take your aspirational hopes for yourself to an authentic statement of who you really are today. Maybe you are or can quickly become the Mother Theresa you picture yourself to be, but for most of us, reality is more complex. Drive toward authenticity in describing your philosophy in terms you can live with on a day-to-day basis. Instead of, “I value each person regardless of their race or religion”, your reality might be, “I strive to value each person for individual capabilities, regardless of race or religion.” Make sure your philosophy is authentic for you both in the best of times and the worst of times – that you can hold to it even under stress.
- Make your philosophy actionable. Your goal is to decide your own right from wrong, to create a set of expectations that others can trust to be accurate. Neither of these is possible if your philosophy is all hot air. So skip the fine words in favor of descriptors of how your philosophy will play out in real life.
- Make your philosophy meaningful. Your philosophy needs to be meaty. It needs to work to separate your decisions into acceptable and unacceptable camps; it should distinguish clearly where you will draw lines. If it’s too all-encompassing, it will say little about you.
- Identify your markers and measures. How will you know if you’re acting in accordance with your philosophy? This is a crucial test. Nothing is worse than setting expectations and then disappointingly falling short, so make sure you have a way of knowing before anyone else if you may be off track.
- Test-drive your philosophy. Give it to a few people who know you well and ask them to give the buzzer to anything inauthentic or difficult to observe in action. Once you’ve polished it up, try it on for size for six months. Does it wear well? Do people feel like you live it? Do you feel like you live it? Keep polishing. This is a lifetime’s work.
If you want to look at a couple of leadership philosophies prepared by people and posted on the internet, here are two examples. There are no rules for format or length or what’s included or not. This is your document and should reflect you.
Now it’s your turn. Your leadership philosophy is already there; it’s just awaiting your discovery and articulation!
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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