“What is your philosophy of leadership?” To many people this question can be daunting and difficult to answer. In fact, I was often met with a blank, deer-in-the-headlights stare when asking this during interviews 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.
Before you fully consider what your philosophy of leadership is, it’s crucial to first question if you are indeed a leader. Or, more importantly, do your staff view you as a leader? Although you may be a manager because you have the title and some power, do people willingly follow you? Answering this question will help you focus on what kind of leader you want to be.
Spend some time considering the signs and clues that you are indeed a leader. Do people follow you because you inspire them or because they fear you? Do they work towards the mission and vision of your organization because your passion and leadership influence them in a positive direction, or because they are coerced? When your staff talk to others about their “boss” – you – do they speak positively? Your answers to these questions will help you determine if you are a leader or not.
Now back to the first question. If you are a leader, what kind are you? What is your philosophy of leadership? In my experience, there is a spectrum of leadership philosophies that usually fall somewhere between relational and directive leadership. Relational leaders trust employees to make meaningful contributions, while directive leaders outline the consequences of not meeting expectations. Relational leadership is about enabling success, while directive leadership is about preventing failure.
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. Directive 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 key element of relational leadership is trust. Leaders who are willingly followed 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 the amount of influence with them.
By now it should be clear that my philosophy of leadership is on the relational side of the spectrum. I say “side 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 implement different management styles and approaches. When one manager is relational and caring while another is directive and indifferent, you can rest assured that, over time, their teams will not perform at their peak. A unified philosophy of leadership is crucial to long-term organizational success.
Four keys to building congruency in leadership philosophies are:
- Write your organization’s leadership philosophy down
- Communicate your philosophy regularly
- When hiring leaders, assess for congruency
- Discuss management issues through the lens of this philosophy
If you look around your organization and see different styles of leadership, I encourage you to talk about it. Talk openly about what your approach to leadership should be, then make this approach the expectation. Starting from when you hire, discuss this philosophy and then incorporate it regularly into your leadership discussions.
When we are intentional about articulating our leadership philosophy at an individual and organizational level, we are more accountable to living it out. When we are faced with difficult leadership decisions, having a crystal clear leadership philosophy makes it easier to determine how we are going to make that decision.
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