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The Crux of Leadership Philosophies

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By LaMesha Craft
December 11, 2023

What is a Leadership Philosophy & Why it’s Important

A leadership philosophy conveys a leader’s overall approach to leadership. It lets the workforce know what the leader expects, what they value and believe in and how they will act in a leadership position. In many cases, it is a written document that a leader may disseminate to the workforce, publish on a company website or simply explain during their first townhall meeting.

In June 2023, Indeed.com published an article to help leaders write their leadership philosophy. It provided examples of how to write a philosophy based on your leadership style and preference. While this article provides a great overview, the crux of leadership philosophies is often the disconnect between the author’s intent, how the words are interpreted by others and the leader’s day to day actions.

An Exercise to Achieve Alignment

The challenge with leadership philosophies is once you disseminate it, you will be judged (good, bad, right or wrong). Your philosophy is a stand-alone document that will help others formulate an opinion of you. Therefore, it is imperative that it conveys your intended message.

When I taught a graduate-level leadership and management course I emphasized the importance of a good leadership philosophy. One of the most effective tools to convey the significance of a well-developed and mindful leadership philosophy was a three-phase practical exercise in which small groups reviewed their cohorts’ leadership philosophies and provided in-person feedback.

Phase One: Each student wrote their leadership philosophy that was supposed to include the following components:

  • Clear articulation of thoughts, beliefs and/or values about leadership.
  • Clear articulation of values and aspirations as a leader.
  • Their expectations of others and what others can expect from them.

Phase Two: Within a small group of 4-5 students, each member reviewed the other members’ philosophies with these expressed instructions:

Please read the philosophy as if you have not met the leader before. You may only read the philosophy ONCE. This is important because you will annotate your initial impression on the following:

  • Is this a leader for which you’d enjoying working? Why or why not? Be specific.
  • What do you perceive as the most important thing to this leader?
  • Does the tone of the philosophy indicate the following have been considered:
    • Diversity (e.g., is the makeup of the workforce reflected – directorates/departments, organizations, civilians, contractors, service members)
    • Inclusion (e.g., what pronouns are used throughout the philosophy?)
    • Equity (e.g., opportunities for professional development for ALL?)

Phase Three: Each student provided in-person feedback to their cohorts on the leadership philosophies. The person receiving the feedback could not respond. Their job was to simply listen (and take notes). At the end of the exercise, each group had to write a synopsis of the feedback for each leadership philosophy. Here is a notional synopsis:

When reviewing LaMesha’s leadership philosophy, all members said they wouldn’t mind working for her and noted that she seemed to value collaboration and wanted to cultivate an environment that thrives in open dialogue and brainstorming. Three members perceived work-life balance as being the most important thing; one member thought it was a toss-up between work-life balance and never missing a suspense; one member felt like it was all over the place and therefore couldn’t determine the most important thing. When assessing whether the tone of diversity, inclusion, and equity were present, we noted that she accounted for all members of the workforce. LaMesha mentioned “he/she” when talking about a role, and mentioned “spouse or partner” when talking about the importance of family. However, when she mentioned professional development opportunities, all members of this group perceived this was really aimed towards the junior-level workforce (given the type of opportunities mentioned).” 

Words Mean Things

Students noted this exercise was invaluable because they had an opportunity to receive honest and constructive feedback on their leadership philosophy before they disseminated it to the workforce. Some students also appreciated the opportunity to practice delivering feedback. After the exercise, I noted the following trends among the class:

  1. Members had different interpretations of the same leadership philosophy.
  2. The reason why a cohort didn’t think they’d enjoy working for a leader was the result of poorly conveyed values about leadership, aspirations as a leader and/or the leader’s expectations.
  3. What members perceived as being the most important thing to the leader was often incorrect.
  4. The tone of the leader’s philosophy did not clearly convey their considerations for diversity, equity and inclusion.

A leadership philosophy is an important component of conveying your leadership style and cultivating a desirable work environment. I encourage you to try this exercise with a group of peers that will provide honest and constructive feedback on your leadership philosophy.

Author: LaMesha “MeMe” Craft, holds a doctorate in public policy and administration. Her research interests include adult learning, leadership and management, the impacts of disruptive technology, alternative futures, and postnormal times. She may be reached at [email protected] or @DrLCraft20

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