In recently starting a new academic year at West Point, NY, I engaged in the important process of initial counseling with my Cadet staff. Over those 25 conversations in getting to know the Cadets better, setting duty expectations between us, and clarifying their developmental goals, I was surprised by a common thread among a majority of them – many wanted to figure out their leadership philosophy. I asked the Cadets their perceptions on a leadership philosophy and what exactly they are looking to create. I quickly found that the comments centered on wanting to first learn what a leadership philosophy is; “I know it’s important and I want to find out how to make my own.”
This is common in the Army and I’m sure other professions experience something similar. For the Army, when young officers prepare to assume command of a company, the process of creating their leadership philosophy is often identified as a mandatory step before formally assuming that role. I think others can relate to having a new brigade commander or some similar role assume command to then immediately publish their leadership philosophy memorandum to all subordinate leaders.
What I’ve found over the years is that everyone, at least within the Army, finds this concept of a leadership philosophy as super important, but are not overly clear on what it actually is, what it should look like, or how we publish or implement it.
So, to help provide some clarity, I offer a model for a leadership philosophy. It’s offered as a model (not the model) as a means to help us better conceptualize and implement this “big shiny object” of leadership that we place a lot of emphasis on, but may not quite know what exactly to do with. I hope we are able to find some ways to best adapt and apply something within this piece to improve our leader effectiveness.
Defining a Leadership Philosophy
If we look at and define the individual words of “leadership” and “philosophy,” I think we can get a decent understanding of the concept. While there may be a variety of ways to define it, I view a leadership philosophy as the specific ways I intend to lead and influence to make people and our organization better.
This concept may take different forms, but I see it as having two basic components: our authentic leadership style and meeting the needs of the organization.
Authentic Leadership. This component captures how we inherently prefer to lead regardless of circumstances. It incorporates our socialized personality with our internalized values to determine how we desire to make people and organizations better. This is the unique value we bring to the team as individual leaders.
It is important to note that there is a difference between mere authenticity and actual “authentic leadership.” While authenticity can assume, “this is me, take me or leave me as I am – period,” that is not necessarily the most appropriate approach as leaders. Authentic leaders have a responsibility to be nested within their social and organizational cultures. We must lead in the ways that are accepted and expected within our society and our organization. Examples of this can include leading with low power-distance in America because we value leaders who relate with and get “down and dirty” with junior members of the organization. It also reflects why we have strict rules of engagement and how we treat prisoners of war – because our nation values treating everyone with dignity and respect (which also touches on recent, important national efforts in diversity, equality, and inclusion).
Needs of the Organization. Understanding and adapting to the organization’s unique needs is also critical for our leadership philosophy. Our philosophy cannot merely be based on our intrinsic leadership styles. Our behaviors and priorities must be shaped by what the organization currently needs in order to continue to develop and grow. This requires us to spend time in the organization to learn its culture, understand its performance, and determine where we need to go next to develop and what we will do to get there. This component of our leadership philosophy means that we cannot enter our new leadership role with a cookie-cutter model on day one. It takes time to assess and diagnose; we must be patient coming in.
Why a Philosophy is Important
I believe forming our leadership philosophy is important for a few critical reasons:
- Clarity in Action & Priorities: If we don’t define what is important, then we lose sight of it and then everything becomes important. Our organization will be tossed back and forth like waves from one urgent priority to the next. Leader first must be clear on their behaviors, why those behaviors are important, and what end they are achieving through them. Let’s look at the simple of example of leaders creating a social media account for their position – is there clear purpose behind that or are we doing it because everyone else is? Once leaders are clear, we can expand that to provide clarity across the organization as well.
- Consistency: Our philosophy keeps us aligned to a defined model over time. Organizational change takes time; often years in my experience, depending on the size of the team and scope of the change. We must remain aligned to our philosophy day-after-day over a potentially long journey.
- Leader Self-Awareness: If I am clear on what I do as a leader and why I do it through my philosophy, then I can become more aware of my natural blind spots. By identifying those, I can then determine ways to fill those gaps through things like bringing others into the team that carry those as strengths and can complement my authentic leadership style.
- Provides a Reflective Guide: Finally, our leadership philosophy can offer a good reflective tool to help us think through experiences. While I enjoy to ask myself the question, “did I happen to command today or did command happen to me,” our leadership philosophy can guide us through what particularly is going well or what we are actually struggling with for improved, focused reflection and determining where we need to make adjustments.
How to Form Your Philosophy
Now, we need to make the transition from understanding the value of a leadership philosophy to actually creating it. I offer a simple process in creating our philosophy that captures both our authentic leadership style and how we will meet the needs of the organization.
I also want to emphasize that this is an iterative process over time (consider a long time). I think our philosophy is never finalized, but continuously refined. We must re-visit our philosophies routinely to assess their validity and what, if anything, is changing. It is constantly evolving.
- Define our values and priorities. What is important to me as a leader – the things I will never compromise? These serve as our philosophy foundation and our guiding north star as we continue to lead. I encourage you to check out The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and True North as books to help guide us in clarifying our values and priorities.
- Answer: “How do I prefer to interact with and influence others?” This question, in conjunction with our values and priorities, helps us to capture our authentic leadership style. This defines the ways that we live out our values and priorities and how we choose to have an impact on others. Things that come to my mind when starting to answer this question includes topics like presence, engagement, perspective, messaging, motivation and inspiring, and so on.
- Conduct a culture assessment for our organization. We need to assess our organization’s culture because this is the thing that will help us determine what needs to change to meet the needs of our organization. Culture is a beast of a concept to try and understand, but I believe Edgar Schein’s three levels of organizational culture is a great model to help us understand it. In conducting the assessment, leaders should identify the evidence and facts across all three levels and then find the inconsistencies between them – are there existing artifacts that do not support our espoused values? Or do we live out enacted values that violate our espoused ones? This culture assessment helps us identify the needed change within the organization.
- Create our change road map. Once we have identified our needed changes in the organization, we must give focus to how we will do that. Personally, I am a fan of John Kotter’s eight-step process for leading change. But whatever your approach, we must create a plan for effective and efficient (as much as possible) change for our organization’s improvement.
- Model it. Each of the four above steps target a unique component to our leadership philosophy. Now, we need to put it all together into a coherent and organized model. This can take many forms; there is no right way. I encourage leaders to capture the four components on a whiteboard and begin to place the different puzzle pieces together in a way that will help direct daily behaviors and enable you to reflect on your philosophy routinely and effectively. To help, I offer my leadership philosophy from my most recent leadership position as an example below.
Should I Publish My Philosophy?
Short answer: I would say somewhere between no and maybe.
Let’s look back at why a leadership philosophy is important. Most of the reasons center around our clarity and understanding of what we do and why we do it. I am still challenged to find value in publishing an idea like this on some formal memorandum on the day we assume our new leadership position to our people. In receiving a leader’s philosophy, I automatically think what it means to me or why I should care about it; I’m left wondering about the ego of the leader that gave it to me. So, I think leaders must first emphasize their philosophies internally.
But there can be value in publishing it, more to help encourage understanding among our people in what we are doing and why we are doing it (back to the change piece). This is more about messaging the “vision” as a leader than it is publishing our leadership philosophy, but it can be a mechanism to reinforce it.
If we desire to publish our philosophies, I just challenge you to first deliberately think through why you are publishing it, to whom you are, and in what ways you are – ensuring all are relevant and effective for developing the team.
Example: My Leadership Philosophy
Below is a simple example to consider for those looking to create their own leadership philosophies. I created this for my previous role as a Tactical Officer of a West Point Cadet company, which was a unique Army “commander” position. It should not be referred as a model to follow, but something to consider and innovate from.
I filled this role for two years and the philosophy took a large majority of that time to evolve – just for a perspective on the time it could take to form and refine.
The thoughts shared in this piece are my personal opinions only and do not reflect that of the United States Military Academy or the U.S. Army.
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