What’s Your Personal Leadership Philosophy & Why Do You Even Need One?

If personal leadership philosophy sounds like wonky nonsense, hang on, I promise you it’s not.

In fact, it’s the exact opposite—it’s the foundation upon which you will build your leadership approach.

So, yeah, it’s kinda important!

Essentially, your personal leadership philosophy is your core beliefs about how you should lead and the type of leader you want to be.

The reason it’s important is so that you are firmly rooted, and you know exactly what to do when you are tested, when times are tough, and when you have difficult decisions to make.

As a leader, you’ll often find yourself in complicated and uncertain situations with decision-making dilemmas because different stakeholders have different needs and values. If you don’t have a foundational leadership philosophy, it’s easy to be swayed by one group or another or tempted to take the path of least resistance.

Yet, often, that’s not the right thing to do, and it’s not the right thing for your team. However, if you have a guiding philosophy, you can go back to it again and again and use it as the lens through which you make all your decisions.

So, let’s look at an example of what it means to have a personal leadership philosophy, particularly from the point of view of positive leadership. Then, I’ll show you how to clarify and develop yours, and share my own with you.

Howard Behar, the former CEO of Starbucks, beautifully illustrated the need for a personal leadership philosophy in his book, It’s Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks.

One of his fundamental principles is that leaders need to “wear one hat.” This means that we need to recognize our unique skills and personal values. Howard recounts how we was promoted to a leadership role early in his career, long before he worked at Starbucks. He wanted to do a great job, so he emulated the leadership style of the company CEO. Long story short, it was a disaster.

His boss called him in to discuss why he was doing so badly in the new position. Howard was upset—he knew things weren’t working, but he didn’t understand why. He explained that he’d tried to be more like the CEO. His boss knew instantly that was the problem. He explained that Howard was promoted because of who he was, his personality, his style, his approach. Suddenly changing that and trying to be someone else was exactly why it wasn’t working.

Howard realized at that moment that a crucial part of leadership is knowing thyself and embracing it. He sat down and made a list of his core values and what mattered deeply to him and resolved to follow those in all that he did. Thus, was borne his personal leadership philosophy. This also became a key reason he chose to work with Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, for so long—because Schultz also knew the power of faithfully following a personal leadership philosophy.

Behar shares that when Starbucks was going through a particularly rough time, it would have been a simple decision to cut health care benefits and save the company millions of dollars. However, this option wasn’t even suggested because everyone understood that Schultz’s philosophy was that he would always take care of his employees. As a boy, Schultz had watched his father get injured on the job, and without benefits, the family struggled financially. He vowed that if he was ever in a leadership position, he would make sure his workers all had health care coverage. That was part of his core values, his personal leadership philosophy—and it was non-negotiable, even when times were tough.

So, what’s your personal leadership philosophy? Have you thought about this?

Perhaps you have a philosophy, but you might not have written it down or really clarified it. Maybe you haven’t thought much about this at all. That’s okay.

Either way, take some time to sit down and ponder on this. Ask yourself these three questions, and write down the answers:

  1. What matters most to you? That is, what are your values?
  2. How do you want to be perceived or remembered as a leader?
  3. What do you want most for your team and the people with whom you work?

Now, look over those answers. What are the common themes? What is emerging as your personal leadership philosophy? Are there specific words or phrases you can use as a summary of this philosophy? Pin them up where you do most of your work so they’re there as a guiding reminder for how you want to lead and make decisions.

When I did this exercise, I came up with five words that capture my leadership philosophy and remind me to live it authentically each day:

Values, Mentor, Adapt, Learning, and Development.

Values: I recognize the need to know myself, my values, and what matters to me. This means that family will always come first and that I am committed to consistently producing high-quality work and positively supporting those around me, whether they are employees, peers, or clients. These are the values that I bring to my organization and that I want my team members to share and value, too. 

Mentor: Early in my career, I was fortunate to have some bosses who saw raw talent in me and helped me to develop and refine it into valuable skills. This paved the way for my professional success, and I have always been grateful for these mentors, all of whom are still close friends and advisors 20+ years later. I want the people who work with me to feel seen and valued just as I was when I was young and trying to figure out my path. 

Adapt: The only thing that’s certain is change. Just look at how technology has changed the workplace, our personal lives, and how we interact with one another over the last decade.  The challenges we face are always changing, and so we, as leaders, need to be able to adapt.  This is, after all, the reason you’re alive and able to read this article—your ancestors adapted and survived, and we must, too.

Learning and development: These two tend to go hand-in-hand for me. They are core aspects of who I am as a person. Ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to be learning and growing. I want the same for the people I work with. After all, if we’re not learning and growing, we’re stagnant or worse yet, regressing.

Those are my five words, my personal leadership philosophy. What are yours?

Take the time this week to contemplate this and ask the three questions I shared earlier.

Time spent doing this now will save you a whole lot of time and heartache in the future.

Know thyself, know thy philosophy, and stay true to it.

For a deeper discussion on this topic, tune into my podcast episode, What’s Your Personal Leadership Philosophy & Why Do You Need One?

Let me know your philosophy and how you’ve used it in your work. And remember, if you have positive leadership questions, email me at [email protected].

Plus, if you want more simple practices that can increase positivity in your workplace, download my book for free: 25 Tips for Leaders: How to Leverage the Science of Happiness to Increase Performance, Productivity, and Profitability

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