What Is Your Leadership Philosophy?

Written by: Shontarius D. Aikens

Photo by Gary Ussery

Over the years that I have taught Leadership Theory to undergraduate and graduate students, I stressed the importance of developing a personal leadership philosophy that is supported by major contemporary leadership theories. I often tell students that the day will come when someone will ask them the question What is your leadership philosophy?” and they will need to be prepared to answer that question with clarity and depth. I absolutely love hearing testimonials from my current and former students on how they felt prepared to answer this question when it was posed to them during job interviews.

For this month’s article, I’d like to share some guidelines from my teaching experiences on how you can get started with developing or perhaps refining your personal leadership philosophy. Whenever I talk about this with my students or my colleagues at academic conferences, I mention the importance of looking at the six components of the leadership process and reflecting on each component from their personal experiences.  Each leadership process component along with guidelines and reflection questions to consider are presented in the sections below.

Component 1: The Leader

There is a large amount of research that has been conducted on aspects specifically pertaining to the leader. I would argue that understanding oneself is probably the most important aspect when developing a personal leadership philosophy.  This requires conducting an honest assessment of one’s personality, traits, attitudes, and values for the purpose of personal awareness and development. I highly recommend Gallup’s CliftonStrengths assessment tool to help a person understand their unique innate talents and how they can be used in a leadership capacity.

Component 2: The Followers

In order for leadership to occur, there must be followers. For this component, I recommend that a person think about the characteristics of the individuals that follow them. Carsten et al. (2014) suggests that followers can be classified into three types:  passive followers, antiauthoritarian followers and proactive followers. Based on your experiences, what types of followers do you typically have in your sphere of influence?  Which type of followers are you most comfortable with leading? Which type of followers provide you with the biggest challenges?

Component 3: The Goals/Objectives

When leading, the end result is to accomplish a goal or an objective. Goals are socially constructed, which means that they are defined by an individual or a group. For this leadership component, I ask individuals to think about the process they use to establish goals/objectives. Do you utilize a Top-Down goal-setting approach, or a Bottom-Up goal-setting approach in which team members are actively involved? Both approaches can be effective when utilized appropriately, and knowing the approach one uses in most leadership situations and being able to explain the rationale is important.

Component 4: The Relationships

The quality of the relationship between the leader and the followers can have a direct effect on whether or not organizational outcomes are accomplished. In the April 2020 issue of Fargo INC!, I talked about these organizational outcomes. And I also discussed in great detail the four dimensions of a relationship (Affect, Loyalty, Contribution, and Professional Respect) and how a leader can use these dimensions to develop positive relationships with their employees. For this leadership component, I recommend that individuals reflect on which dimension(s) are most important and relevant when building strong positive relationships with their followers.  One may find that they are naturally better at establishing relationships based on their reputation, skills, and experiences (i.e. Professional Respect), while others may find that they are naturally better at building relationships based on friendliness (i.e. Affect).

Component 5: The Actions/Behaviors

In the leadership process, the leader demonstrates specific actions and behaviors in order to influence followers. Seminal research conducted at three major universities (The Ohio State University, The University of Michigan, and The University of Texas) determined that leadership behaviors could be classified into two types—task behaviors (which facilitates goal achievement) and relationship behaviors (which helps followers feel comfortable with themselves and each other). When leading, which type of behaviors are the most important to you?  Do you find that you demonstrate mostly task related behaviors or relationship based behaviors?

Component 6: The Situation/Context

Different situations or contexts require different approaches to leadership. For example, some situations may require more of a hands-on intentional approach, while others require a leader to be more hands-off. For this component, I recommend reflecting on one’s ability and level of comfort and ease in changing their leadership approach when appropriate for the situation. In addition, one should consider whether or not they thrive in high-pressure situations or in low-pressure situations. An honest assessment of past leadership experiences (successes and failures) could provide some insights into those situations that are a better fit for you as a leader.
After reflecting on each of these components individually, now it is time to put them all together. I recommend drafting a paragraph that summarizes one’s positions and perspectives (with examples for illustrative purposes) for each component. The end result would be a short 1-2 page document that details your personal leadership philosophy in depth.

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