George Ambler

Helping Leaders Grow

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The Importance of a Clear Leadership Philosophy

Consistent leadership action and behaviour requires a clear leadership philosophy. Why? Well, because your leadership philosophy determines how you respond to people and how you respond to situations. Your leadership philosophy affects your behaviour and ultimately your leadership effectiveness. So what exactly is a leadership philosophy? Encarta defines philosophy as the:

  1. examination of basic concepts: the branch of knowledge or academic study devoted to the systematic examination of basic concepts such as truth, existence, reality, causality, and freedom
  2. school of thought: a particular system of thought or doctrine
  3. guiding or underlying principles: a set of basic principles or concepts underlying a particular sphere of knowledge
  4. set of beliefs or aims: a precept, or set of precepts, beliefs, principles, or aims, underlying somebody’s practice or conduct

Our leadership philosophy is a set of beliefs and principles, that strongly influence how we interpret reality and guide how we understand the way the world works. It’s our philosophy, our understanding and interpretation of leadership, that affects how we react to people, events and situations around us. How we think, determines how we behave! Steven Covey described this as the power of 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 we choose to respond, in the space we’re given, between stimulus and response, is greatly affected by our understanding of leadership, that is, it’s affected by our leadership philosophy.

The Key Components of a Leadership Philosophy

Research by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, described in their book “Built to Last ” has shown that enduringly successful organisations have a clear leadership philosophy, the authors call this an organisation’s core ideology that they describe as:

“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 key 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 expressed in our values, an ultimately how we behaviour, resulting in our unique leadership style. It’s these beliefs that guide how we choose to respond to people and situations. To be effective as leaders, it’s useful to create a personal leadership philosophy that is clear and helps to guide our actions. I suggest that all leaders take the time necessary to write down their personal leadership philosophy, which should contain 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 have written them down share and teach them to others around you. A clearly communicated leadership philosophy helps build trust amongst constituents.

Leaders are Guided by their Leadership Philosophy

Two leaders who lead using completely opposite leadership philosophies to lead their teams is effectively discussed by Harvard Business School, Professor Scott Snook , who asks, “as a leader Is it better to be loved or feared“? He underscores his point 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?

  • 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 overall range of effectiveness as a leader.

The primary lesson for me, is that leaders need to gain clarity about, their leadership philosophy, style and behaviour. How clear are you about your leadership philosophy? Are your actions guided by your leadership philosophy? How big is the gap between what you say and what you do?

“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


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  1. Interesting how you put this and it’s even more interesting with the two examples you used. Bobby Knight’s process obviously worked for him, but I think that’s more an offshoot of an old philosophy that stopped working as people’s mores changed. Mike Krzyzewski worked under Knight for awhile and obviously was a better student of people than Knight as evidenced by his totally changing leadership tactics and having greater success and greater sustained success. As a matter of fact, doing things Krzyzewski’s way seems to have worked better for more coaches than Knight’s way; all you have to do is look at John Wooden and Dean Smith to see that.

    • Hi Mitch,

      Thanks for your insights.

      I also think that the leadership context influences and guides that appropriateness and impact of a chosen leadership philosophy.

  2. Vincent Baldwin

    This post really resonates with me. Like the Nike slogan of old, “Just do it”, I’m finding that leadership isn’t a skill I need to copy and adapt. It’s a discovery full of failures and successes. However, one needs to start the journey

    If it’s not Coach K vs the general, then its the extrovert vs the introvert or the A-hole vs the emotional intelligent one. Regardless, all can have successes in their chosen fields.

    Nice post!

  3. I also think that’s very important. An it’s very importan to know, which sort of a manger or leader you are.

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