What’s Your Philosophy of Leadership?

“What is your philosophy of leadership?”

To some people this question can be daunting and difficult to answer. In fact, I was sometimes met with a blank, deer-in-the-headlights stare when I asked leaders about this during interviews I conducted for my first book, The Ordinary Leader. I found it surprising that so many people had not taken the time to fully develop their thoughts about what it means to be a leader.

One of the reasons it’s so important to have a philosophy of leadership is because of what we found in the survey conducted for this book: A leader’s confidence in their own leadership abilities is related to having a clear philosophy of leadership. Ninety percent of those who reported they have a clear philosophy of leadership feel confident in their leadership abilities, as opposed to 32 percent of those who do not have a clear philosophy of leadership.

Relational leadership is about enabling success, while authoritarian leadership is about demanding success.

How Do You Articulate Your Philosophy of Leadership?

In my experience, there is a spectrum of leadership philosophies that usually falls somewhere between relational and authoritarian. Relational leaders trust employees to make meaningful contributions, while authoritarian leaders outline the consequences of not meeting expectations. Relational leadership is about enabling success, while authoritarian leadership is about demanding success.

Relational leaders build relationships with employees and promote collaborative decision-making, information sharing, and teamwork. They assume the best in employees and use influence built on trust and relationships to motivate. Authoritarian leaders use positional power to actively structure the work of employees and lay out expectations for compliance. They assume the worst in employees and use threats and punishments to motivate.

The Importance of Relational Leadership

The key element of relational leadership is trust. These leaders have earned trust and are therefore able to influence others without using coercion. When you care about your employees and have their interests in mind – not just the organization’s – you increase your influence with them.

However, this does not mean that relational leaders should never be directive in their approach. Sometimes there are circumstances when a relational leader needs to be directive, like when someone is clearly doing something that will cause harm. You can still be a relational leader but be directive when the circumstances require a directive approach. The key reason this can still work without damaging the relationship is because the directive action is rooted in the trust built by a philosophy of relational leadership. In this way, the action of being directive is different than the philosophy of being authoritarian.

By now it should be clear that my philosophy of leadership is on the relational end of the spectrum. I say “end of the spectrum” because there are leaders, even within my own organization, who are more relational than me. Due to a variety of reasons including personality traits and experience, some people will be more relational than others. But I make no apologies that I believe all leaders should embrace a philosophy  that emphasizes the importance of relationships. When we get to know our employees on a human level – when we care about our employees – we build trust. And with trust, employees will move mountains with you rather than for you.

Congruency of Leadership Across the Organization

In my consulting work, one of the most common issues I find within medium to large organizations is inconsistency in how different managers “do” leadership. Instead of having a crystal-clear vision and approach for how the organization views and lives out leadership, there is often a patchwork of philosophies and approaches. This typically results in confusion and, at worst, disengaged and disgruntled employees.

Time and again, I have seen organizations place limits on their success and growth by allowing leaders to have different leadership philosophies. When one manager is relational and caring while another is authoritarian and indifferent, you can rest assured that, over time, the organization will not perform at its peak. I believe that a unified philosophy of leadership on the relational side of the spectrum is crucial to long-term organizational success.

To build congruency in leadership philosophies, focus on these four elements:

  • Write your organization’s leadership philosophy down. This helps you remain accountable to it and aids in orienting new leaders.
  • Communicate your philosophy regularly. This will assist your leadership team in being accountable to the philosophy and consistent in applying it.
  • When hiring or promoting leaders, assess their leadership philosophy for congruency with the organization’s. This will help you maintain congruency on your leadership team.
  • Discuss management issues through the lens of your philosophy. This will ensure you apply your philosophy of leadership to everyday situations.

If you look around your organization and see different philosophies of leadership, I encourage you to talk about it. Have open conversations in an effort to clarify and agree on your organization’s approach to leadership and seek ways to bring about greater alignment with it. Starting from when you hire new leaders, discuss your philosophy and incorporate it regularly into your leadership discussions.

When we are intentional about articulating our leadership philosophy at an individual and an organizational level, we are more accountable to living it out.

When we are intentional about articulating our leadership philosophy at an individual and an organizational level, we are more accountable to living it out. When we are faced with difficult leadership decisions, having a clear leadership philosophy makes it easier to determine how to make consistent decisions that support the work of the organization and create trust with our staff.

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Randy Grieser

Founder & Advisor

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