August 2015: Why You Should Have A Written Leadership Philosophy

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Leader To Leader Journal


In the summer of 1992 I was a junior officer assigned to the US Army’s prestigious Berlin Brigade, whose Cold War mission to counter Soviet strength in Germany’s historic capital had changed drastically with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR.  We would now be a rapid deployment force available for missions anywhere in Europe.  Practically, this meant a unit designed to fight on foot in a large city now had to be ready to take on tank formations anywhere on the continent.  The transition was a huge challenge; frankly, many of the leaders had no idea how we were going to get the job done.


Then my six hundred man unit – 5th Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment  – part of the larger Brigade—got a new commander who had some very clear ideas: we were not only going to accomplish the mission, we would exceed expectations.  


Soon after joining us, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Rodriguez brought the organization’s leaders to a beautiful setting beside Berlin’s famous Lake Wannsee, where he spent an hour walking us through his background, his values, his eighteen-year military career, and even some of his childhood experiences.  He let us see who he was and, most importantly, told us his expectations of our performance. He even claimed he knew our true potential.


I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my first exposure to a written leadership philosophy. What happened afterwards was nothing short of amazing.  We went from being a pretty darn good unit to a GREAT one.  As I look back now – this one single hour is the reason why – it was the genesis of our transformation and ascent to excellence.  He let us know in no uncertain terms how we would perform as a team.  Our values, our mission, our goals and our standards were all made crystal clear.  Within weeks, both our morale and pride were up.  Naturally, peak performance followed.  The culmination of our team growth was the following Spring at the Combat Maneuver Training Center (CMTC) in Hohenfels Germany where we did something that had never happened before.  In a mock battle, we defeated, no, we crushed an OPFOR (Opposing Forces) unit with superior equipment and battlefield insight. It was light Infantry (rifles and rucksacks) defeating Armor (tanks and mechanized troops).   The business equivalent would be a local mom and pop shop beating out Wal-Mart or Target for exclusive rights to box stores in a city of a million people or perhaps a ten person start-up beating out IBM for a billion dollar IT services contract.


You don’t have to be a military commander, a CEO, or even a gifted orator to inspire and motivate your team. You certainly don’t have to enter combat or conduct war games to prove your team’s capabilities.  But, we can all take a lesson from LTC Joe Rodriguez and others like him who have taken the time to think through, develop, and then communicate a Personal Leadership Philosophy.   


I developed my written Personal Leadership Philosophy and shared it with my company. In fact, it is part of ThunderCat Technology’s employee handbook that each person gets their very first day.  Over the past 6 years we have gone from $29 Million to over $400 Million in revenues and we were recently named “Best Places To Work in Virginia” and one of “America’s Most Promising Companies” by Forbes magazine.  I have personally helped more than 100 people develop and communicate theirs as well.  I have seen over and over the impact that it can have on careers and companies.


What Exactly Is A Personal Leadership Philosophy?

Writing a philosophy is a very personal exercise and must begin with answering some serious questions about who you are, what you believe in, what you value, your priorities and your expectations of yourself and others.


Quite simply, a Personal Leadership Philosophy is nothing more than a written statement that is developed to help you communicate to your team how they will perform. I have seen many versions including 17 bullet points, a PowerPoint with pictures, and even one that resembled a sonnet. In general the things you should include are:

  • Personal Values – what you believe in; such as honesty, commitment, respect for others.
  • How You Will Work – description of how you will carry out your responsibilities.
  • Expectations – what you expect of others and what they can expect of you.
  • Non-negotiables – what you will demand and what you will not tolerate.
  • Priorities – what’s important, and in what order.
  • Personal Idiosyncrasies – your peculiar likes or “pet peeves”
  • Commitment – your willingness for feedback


If this seems a bit much or too detailed, really all you are trying to communicate is quite simple: What I believe, what you can expect of me, what I expect of you, and how we can work best together.


How Should I Develop It?

The philosophy will only be effective if it is read, so keep it short. Most leaders are able to keep theirs to no more than two typewritten pages. A one-pager is even better.


There are many ways to develop yours.  There is no wrong way.  But feel free to try the following to get started:


Step 1. Define what you think an effective leader should do. The best way to do this is make a list of the qualities of the best and worst leaders you have known.


Step 2. Compare and contrast the “best” and “worst” lists.


Step 3. Using your descriptions, analyze your leadership style and personality. What top three or four characteristics do you want to be known for?  Get them down in writing as if you were explaining them to your child. State the ethical rules you infer from these values.


Step 4. Now that you have the values and ethical rules, translate these into leadership principles that you will model and that you want to see in others. Again, clearly articulate them.  It is not enough to state platitudes like “integrity” or “customer first”.  You need to explain what that means and looks like in action.
Step 5. Finally, add in your particular likes and dislikes, your “hot buttons” or “pet peeves.”


Step 6.  At this point, you should have the first draft of your philosophy. Review it and then set it aside for at least a week. After the week is up, review it again, make corrections and set it aside for another week. Keep doing this until you are satisfied with the philosophy. Share it with some close advisors and mentors – get feedback and refine. When you are ready – share with your team.


Don’t get overwhelmed and think you have to follow the exact steps just laid out or even the formats you see others using. Those are just guides and tools to help you.  The main thing is to think and capture your thoughts however it feels right and comfortable to you.   Don’t overcook it.  You are not trying to craft some perfect essay.  A rough draft or some scribbled notes is better than nothing at all.


One resource you can use is a book called The Leader’s Compass.  It was written by Ed Ruggero, West Point graduate, military historian, and the author of 11 books with Dennis Haley, Annapolis graduate, successful CEO and the founder of Academy Leadership.  It contains several samples of personal leadership philosophies.  After attending one of their courses three years ago, I am now on their Board of Advisors and do workshops once or twice a year for Academy Leadership, LLC.  Another popular and recent book is One Piece of Paper by Mike Figliuolo. It guides you through a simple approach for creating, articulating, and living your personal leadership philosophy – one that can be shared on a single piece of paper.


A quick Google search of “personal leadership philosophy” or “written leadership philosophy” will also pull up a series of websites, resources, articles and white papers including eHow.  Read a few, and feel free to cut and paste sentences, words and some pieces that resonate with you to help you write your own.  But the end product must be your own.  Keep in mind the “personal” in Personal Leadership Philosophy.  It is yours and yours alone.  That doesn’t mean you can’t review and integrate pieces and parts of others that you like – there are literally thousands out there in practice today.  It needs to fit your style and your unique voice.


What Do I Do With It?

Your Personal Leadership Philosophy is more than just a document.  Simply by going through the deep reflection, the development exercise, and the discipline of concisely writing it down you will already come out with greater self-knowledge, greater self-confidence and greater personal energy.  But once you are satisfied with it – SHARE it and LIVE it.


There are many ways to share it.  I have seen it read aloud to a gathered group, published as outlook meeting invite to have the person come discuss it, or like me published to a group and then discussed individually over time.  One president posts it prominently in all of his factories and office buildings and his new customers regularly ask for copies.  A start up CEO I know uses it as a recruiting tool for prospective new employees. Others have used during internal interview boards to get a promotion or attach it as part of their resume.


This clearly isn’t meant to be just a speech and certainly not an edict.  The purpose is to truly engage your people in a dialogue about it.  It is not a set of commandments or demands.  Keep in mind that in it you commit to certain behaviors as well. It is a great way to give people permission to give you feedback and invite them to tell you how you are doing.  They are accountable to you but you are accountable to them as well.


Don’t do this once and forget about it. Continue to emphasize your philosophy and what it means to your people in their day-to-day work lives.  Find ways to repeat it and reinforce it on a regular basis so people internalize it.  


A Personal Leadership Philosophy is often called a leader’s compass.  A compass is something you use for direction, guidance and most importantly set a course in a storm. In times of crisis it is always important to reflect on your values as you face challenges and tough choices.  Your leader’s compass can provide that moral guide and give the courage to always do the right thing in any circumstance for you and your entire team.


Finally, and most important make sure you live by your own philosophy.


So…Why Have A Written Leadership Philosophy?

You have seen leaders come and go and you’ve seen some succeed and others fail. Have you ever wondered what explains this? The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy have researched the leadership phenomena for years. Both have produced excellent summaries – The U.S. Army’s Excellence in the Combat Arms and the Navy’s Command Excellence. What those summaries indicate is that a widely communicated leadership philosophy and a vision of what the leader wants an organization to be are essential to being an effective leader. One of the key first steps in becoming a leader is to develop and articulate this personal leadership philosophy statement.


When you write and follow your Leader’s Compass you will be a more effective leader and have less stress. You will energize your people and set them free. Your people will admire you for being authentic. You will be on course for leadership success.


Juan Dominguez, is a District General Manager with SimplexGrinnell a company that specializes in fire alarm, sprinkler, integrated security, and emergency communications systems. He shared his leadership philosophy back in 2010 and saw a 10% increase in revenues and 15% increase in profit the following year. Coincidence? He says it isn’t.


In 2008, Dennis C. Parker, CEO of Active Minerals International along with his senior leaders from across the globe took a course with Academy Leadership during which they each wrote their leadership philosophies and then shared them with their respective teams when they got home. This created a focus and alignment of vision, purpose, and goals. Soon there was an increase of 20% to the bottom line of this international mining company.


When Bob McDonald became President and Chief Executive of Procter&Gamble the largest consumer products company in the world in 2009, he published his philosophy.  During his tenure P&G was named twice as the best company for leaders by Chief Executive Magazine and #1 in Hay Group’s Best Companies for Leadership Study.  In 2014, when he was hand-picked by President Obama to lead the Veteran’s Administration out of a scandal and crisis – one of his first steps was to share his personal leadership philosophy with his senior team and then all 312,00+ employees.


Satya Nadella emailed all employees on his first day as CEO of Microsoft.  In it he addressed many of the key elements.  Who am I? Why am I here? Why are we here? What do we do next? He then invites all employees to join him and “build on this foundation together.


Brad Smith, President & CEO, Intuit has a written leadership philosophy.  Intuit whose flagship products include QuickBooks, TurboTax and Quicken is consistently ranked as one of Fortune’s Top 100 best places to work.  He describes it as a “contract that empowers you to understand who I am, what I aspire to become, and how you can best work with me and help me and the greater team improve each day.” During his tenure over the past 5 years, revenue is up 41%, net income is up 102% and the stock has outperformed the S&P 500 by 31%.   
I am not suggesting direct correlation about the business and financial performance of a company and the existence of a personal leadership philosophy. Multiple factors obviously contribute to performance. But, I will say that I sincerely believe leaders who think about values, reflect and communicate how they want to lead their team significantly increase their chances of success.


Convinced yet?  Consider what happens when a leader fails to communicate a philosophy, establish a future vision or develop a system to measure progress toward that vision:

  • People second-guess the leader.
  • People trying to “discover” the leader’s intent leads to piecemeal revision and initiation of policies and procedures.
  • Resources may be used inappropriately as priorities change.
  • Building your teams’ trust and confidence can be delayed or fail completely.


In short, all the time and energy that could be spent molding a better organization is wasted on guessing what the boss wants. No leader intentionally programs this, but it happens. The time needed to correct it can affect that leader and the organization’s overall performance.


In the end, the most important outcome of this is to open dialogue and engage your team members in a discussion. This is simply one vehicle to start that powerful conversation.


Concluding Thoughts

The day after I arrived in Baghdad in the Spring of 2006 I pulled my Special Operations team into a tiny little 10×10 room with a bed, a desk, and rusted metal locker.  We sat on the floor together and I pulled out a small notebook I had scribbled some notes in.  I told them my background, my values, my strengths and even my weaknesses.  I discussed our mission for the next year, laid out my expectations and ended by committing to do my very best every single day to keep them safe and get them home to their loved ones. Over the next 2 hours, we all shared our goals, our strengths and respective weaknesses.  Even though we had trained together for months prior to our arrival “boots on ground” this was really the first time we sat, reflected on the enormous task in front of us, got to know one another, and truly bonded as a team. We left the wire on our first mission the next day anxious and nervous but equally excited. We were focused on our mission and on each other.  We were a team, and I know that in the 5 months we were together we made a real difference in the Sadr City slums.


Followers expect leaders to show them the standard and give them the training and resources to reach it. They expect leaders to lead by example. Additionally, they expect leaders to keep them informed and to care for them. Leaders may have to ask others to make extraordinary sacrifices to achieve goals. Leaders may have to call on them to do things that seem impossible. If leaders have trained their people to standard, inspired their willingness, and consistently looked after their interests, they will be prepared to accomplish any goal, anytime, anywhere.


Publishing a leadership philosophy helps create an environment for these things to happen. It enables leaders to discover what they stand for, what’s important to them, and articulate this to followers. Followers know the leader’s expectations and how the leader is most likely to act. This process leads to mutual trust and confidence and builds a stable foundation upon which long-term relations can be built and organizational effectiveness achieved.


Obviously, the written leadership philosophy is only the beginning of your leadership journey and the transformation of your people into a high performance team.  But it is also a very important first step.  So take the time and start yours today. Both you and your team will be glad you did.


Resources to Help You:

The Leader’s Compass, A Personal Leadership Philosophy is Your Foundation for Success
Book by by Ed Ruggero and Dennis F. Haley


One Piece of Paper

Book by Mike Figliuolo.  


Personal Leadership Philosophy Samples via Academy Leadership


Crafting Your Own Personal Leadership Philosophy via Managing Americans


- Tom Deierlein


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