Leadership Basics 2: Building A Unique Leadership Philosophy

In an earlier post, What is Intentional Leadership?, I introduced my basic definition of leadership: intentionally noticing areas or issues that are in need of change, choosing how to approach making the desired change, and taking action to execute the change. This definition is simple. A few hours of discussion and reflection are all it takes for most people to understand that to become an intentional leader they should engage in these three steps. But that’s where simplicity ends.

Organizational leaders’ real challenge is creating a clear framework that defines company values, educates team members on the leadership philosophy and practices that guide change initiatives, and provides the practice it takes for people to become effective change agents. This post will outline a process to help you create a leadership philosophy for your company.

Step 1: Identify your Purpose & Values

There are a million ways to tackle this project, and it’s outside the scope of this blog. Just know that it’s part of a high performance infrastructure to identify your purpose before you begin building or adjusting a leadership training framework. Otherwise, you won’t be able to tell people you develop WHY you’re investing in a development program, including why they’re sitting in a room with you instead of getting their work done. When you gather a group of leaders for the first time, a “why” tied to your purpose should be the first thing you discuss after pointing out where the restrooms are. If you want help with this step, reach out to us and check out the high performance infrastructure links here.

Step 2: Identify your Company’s Leadership Philosophy

Finding clarity on what it means when team members use the word “leadership” can be a challenge. Leadership is both ubiquitous and scarce. It’s ubiquitous because everyone has some idea in their mind about what they consider good leadership. We’ve all had a parent, coach, pastor, friend, or boss that exemplifies some qualities of a good leader.

If you search leadership on Amazon you’ll find books by experts in ministry, business, faith, sports, psychology, and self-help. There’s a good chance that if an anthropologist spent a year studying your company, they would note stories that are told over and over about leaders from your company’s (short or long) history. These “leadership fables” might feature the founder of the company, leaders who “saved the company”, and other key contributors whose stories exemplify a wide range of leadership styles and behaviors.

Each team member naturally combines examples from the company “leadership fables” and their own personal experiences to build their own story about what leadership looks like at your organization. When we attempt to design or participate in a leadership training program these ideas that we’ve all absorbed about leadership bleed into the experience. While this isn’t inherently bad, it brings confusion to the conversation, especially when trying to decide what facets of leadership to focus on when training growing leaders.

Leadership is scarce in that, despite decades of empirical study of social, personality, and industrial psychology, the study of leaders is relatively incomplete, and a comprehensive model of effective leadership hasn’t been agreed upon by the experts. While there’s much to learn from theories that describe servant leadership, authentic leadership, transformational leadership, team leadership, trait-based leadership, and situational leadership (among many others), it can be difficult to point to one set of qualities or practices that make someone a leader.

Leadership is also scarce because for every story someone has about a positive leader in their life, you’ll find many more stories of the damage done by toxic leaders. Despite all of us having our own ideas of what good leadership is, our businesses, communities, schools, religious bodies, and government entities can’t seem to stop elevating destructive people to positions of power. Perhaps even worse, emerging leaders can’t seem to stop becoming more toxic as they gain power.

So how do we tackle teaching leadership in a way that is helpful to our company and to the leaders we aim to elevate?

It begins with understanding that we can’t corner the market on leadership by defining a set of qualities that hold up to scrutiny in every situation across all of human history. Instead, we narrow our focus to three areas. This helps us create a list of qualities that fit our unique context.

Qualities your company values

Put on your anthropologist hat. What qualities do the “leadership fables” in your company elevate? What leadership values are already being lived out in daily operations?

One of our clients has the core value “competitive spirit.” You can’t spend an hour with their leadership team without hearing a story about a time they beat their competition (they also LOVE sports metaphors). Their CEO recently shared a story about showing up alone at one of their customers’ corporate offices to find a team of 6 salespeople from a key competitor there to discuss the same project. An hour later he walked out with the contract in his pocket. He finished the story by turning to his team and saying, “so, we need to decide if we want to take on this project. I mostly just wanted to beat those other guys, and I’m not sure this is a beneficial project for us.” That’s “competitive spirit!”

A non-profit we worked with had the core value of “service-oriented.” They spend one staff meeting each month doing service projects for each department and shut down their operations one week each year to participate in a service retreat for other organizations. Servant-leadership qualities are central to their culture. Looking at research on servant-leadership, identifying behaviors of a servant leader, and incorporating those into their leadership training program, helped reinforce the existing values. Their staff was already primed to value these qualities and to have a basic understanding of how a service mindset can be applied in day to day leadership decisions.

Qualities that support strategy

Where is your company going? What strategic initiatives are required to get there? Are there certain leadership behaviors that will facilitate executing these strategies? Have you identified leadership gaps that could inhibit your organization from reaching its strategic goals? Are there critical leadership competencies that your workforce is lacking?

One service company we worked with provides high levels of responsibility to young leaders. These young supervisors and front line employees work with customers all day every day, and need high levels of emotional intelligence, empathy, and communication skills. Company strategists were acutely aware that the proliferation of social media hasn’t helped young people prepare for these roles. They saw strategic value in creating a highly relational workforce while the social skills of rival company employees decreased along with the wider population. They use their limited training time to set themselves apart by equipping team members to build authentic connections with customers. This example illustrates the importance of continually updating leadership training strategy. A strategy of differentiation through relational skill wouldn’t have been as strategic 15 years ago.

A hospitality company wanted to move their department managers from siloed technical experts into a collaborative and agile leadership team. Where leaders had depended on their influence with the CEO to get resources and make progress, now they needed to navigate healthy conflict and collaboration with peers. We built a project management training program to help coach leaders in the collaborative leadership skills they need while executing on tactical goals as a team. In this case, emotional intelligence and ownership of big picture organizational goals were strategic leadership skills to include in a training program.

Qualities supported by science

While there’s a long list of leadership qualities that have been shown to be effective in research settings, you should be able to identify some themes that are consistent and valid across many studies. Unique contexts demand diverse sets of leadership skills, but there are themes that seem to emerge in almost every study. I caution you against arbitrarily choosing a “flavor of the month” management book that offers a narrow interpretation of leadership. Many companies get caught in these fads and lose engagement in their leadership training programs as leadership philosophies shift every couple of years.

Please do your own research, but in the meantime if you’re looking for a solid set of qualities to include in your training program, I think a safe bet is Kouzes & Posner’s The Leadership Challenge. This book breaks down leadership into 5 practices (practices take practices versus the gain it and forget it nature of a “skill”), is based on over 2.5 million surveys since 1982, and is in it’s 6th print edition.

You can combine these areas of focus to produce a filter that helps you discover what items to include in your company’s unique leadership training:

There you have it! A framework to develop your company’s unique leadership philosophy. A philosophy is great, but won’t get you much on it’s own. In my next post we’ll get practical by discussing best practices on transforming that shiny new philosophy into a leadership development program where people actually do stuff! See you then!

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