The importance of a clear leadership philosophy

Effective leadership demands a clear leadership philosophy. Why? Well, because your leadership philosophy is what determines how you respond to people and situations. Your leadership philosophy affects your behaviour and your leadership effectiveness. What exactly is a leadership philosophy?

The Oxford Dictionaries defines philosophy as the:

  1. The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.
  2. A particular system of philosophical thought.
  3. The study of the theoretical basis of a particular branch of knowledge or experience.
  4. A theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.

The kind of philosophy we’re going to explore in this article is “a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.” This is the starting point for our exploration of leadership philosophy.

A leadership philosophy is a set of beliefs and principles that influence how you interpret reality and guide how you understand the world works. Your leadership philosophy affects how you interpret and react to people, events and situations. Simply put, how you think determines how you behave! Steven Covey describes this as the space between stimulus and response.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Stephen Covey

How you respond, the space between stimulus and response guided by your leadership philosophy.

“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And, the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

The key components of a leadership philosophy

Research by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, described in their book “Built to Last” found that enduringly successful organisations are founded on a clear leadership philosophy. The authors call this an organisation’s core ideology which they describes as follows:

“core values and sense of purpose beyond just making money — that guides and inspires people throughout the organisation and remains relatively fixed for long periods of time”

At it’s core, a leadership philosophy consists of a set of beliefs describing:

  • What you believe about people.
  • What you believe about life.
  • What you believe makes groups and organisations effective.

These three belief systems are revealed in your values, that guide how you behave, resulting in your unique leadership style. It’s these core beliefs that guide how you choose to respond to people and situations.

The best leaders have a well defined personal leadership philosophy. It’s not a theory, but a set of principle used to guide their daily actions. Given the importance of these principle most leaders write them down and share them widely. 

The process of writing down your leadership philosophy makes clear what guides your decisions and actions. A well defined leadership philosophy contains the following components:

  • A Significant Purpose: What are you about? What business are you in? What’s your purpose? Are you passionate about your purpose? Is it clear?
  • A Compelling Vision: Where are you going? What will it look like when you get there? Why should others support it?
  • Inspiring Values: What are my core values? What guides your actions? What guides your decision making?
  • Guiding Principles: What are my guiding principles?

Once you’ve written your personal leadership philosophy, share and teach it to others. A clear leadership philosophy builds trust.

Leaders are guided by their leadership philosophy


A great example of how a leadership philosophy affects behaviour is from two of the most successful college basketball coaches, Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. Each successful in their own right, but working from completely different leadership philosophy. There leadership style is discussed by the Harvard Business School, Professor Scott Snook, who asks the question “as a leader is it better to be loved or feared?” Seeking to answer the question with the following leadership examples:

Bobby Knight

Bobby Knight, also known as “The General,” is the head coach at Texas Tech University. He’s a fiery, in-your-face taskmaster who leads through discipline and intimidation, which some critics say goes too far. Knight was fired from a long career at Indiana University for grabbing a student, and prior to that he was filmed clutching one of his own players by the neck. And then there was the infamous incident during a game when Knight tossed a folding chair across the court to protest a referee’s call.

Mike Krzyzewski

Mike Krzyzewski, also known as Coach K, leads the men’s basketball program at Duke University. Instead of fear, Krzyzewski relies heavily on positive reinforcement, open and warm communication, and caring support. For Coach K, “It’s about the heart, it’s about family, it’s about seeing the good in people and bringing the most out of them,” says Snook.

The Results?

Different styles, yes, but the results are similar: After long careers, both have similar win-loss records for their teams and are acknowledged as top coaches in the collegiate ranks. So what do Knight and Krzyzewski tell us about leadership? What you believe about human nature, says Snook, influences your leadership style. 

“If you believe people are fundamentally good-good meaning that they’re trying to do their best, they’re self-motivated, they want to perform-then your fundamental leadership style will be one way. It will be empowering them, getting obstacles out of the way, and setting high goals while maintaining standards. 

“If you believe people are fundamentally bad-if you believe people are constantly looking to get over and get by and won’t do anything unless they’re watched-then you’ll tend to lead with a very transactional management style that’s built primarily around rewards and punishments. Tight supervision, a controlling type of leadership style characterized by a great deal of social distance between leaders and led.”

The Key Lessons?

The key lessons are as follows:

  • Effective leaders understand their own assumptions about human nature.
  • How you lead (leadership style) is influenced by who you are (self-awareness) and the demands of the situation (situational awareness).
  • Expanding your self-awareness, situational awareness, and ability to adapt your leadership style increases your effectiveness as a leader.

Leaders must seek to gain clarity on their leadership philosophy. It’s only by doing the this hard work that you’re transformed into a powerful leader.

Consider the following questions:

  • How clear are you about what’s your leadership philosophy? 
  • What leadership philosophy do you use to guide your actions? 
  • How big is the gap between what you say and what you do?