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Mike Figliuolo


Defining Your Leadership Philosophy on One Piece of Paper

As a leader, knowing your own role is a critical skill

Published: Monday, August 14, 2023 - 11:02

We make leadership way too difficult. We write entire books on it. We teach it in universities and MBA programs. We dedicate entire fields of study to it. We create massive corporate programs to foster it. Here’s the thing: It’s really not that hard.

Sure, we teach leadership at thoughtLEADERS, too (it’s our Leadership Maxims program), but we come at it from the standpoint that leadership is an intensely personal sport. Every leader is different. But what remains the same is that every true leader needs to understand, articulate, and continuously improve their leadership philosophy.

The concept of writing your personal leadership philosophy is the very core of my book, One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2011). To give you a sense of how the method works, let’s explore what it means to write a leadership philosophy.

To get a holistic view of leadership, you need to look at four aspects of it:
Leading yourself: What motivates you, and what are your “rules of the road?”
Leading the thinking: Where are you taking the organization, and what are your standards for performance?
Leading your people: Duh. This is the one we always focus on, usually to the detriment of other aspects.
Leading a balanced life: If you’re burned out, you’re worthless. How do you define and achieve balance?

For a quick video overview of these topics, check out this footage from a panel I was on to discuss the topic of leadership. It will give you a quick set of stories on the topic. In addition to that footage, here are video excerpts from a keynote presentation on this topic. Beyond that, we must dive in deeper to the leadership-maxims approach. Here goes.

Let’s start by examining the difference between management and leadership. It’s really quite simple: You manage things, but you lead people.

Budgets, materials, programs, and projects all get managed. It’s a checklist of tasks, and results are typically pretty easy to measure. The problem is we want to take a similar checklist approach to how we deal with people.

People are funny. They’re unpredictable. They’re emotional. They’re ambitious. They’re irrational and complex. You need to understand all these aspects (and then some) and somehow get people to do difficult things because they want to do them. Tricky.

It’s this ability to point the way and inspire that serves as the foundation of leadership. You can’t do that with a checklist. Instead, we’ve found that establishing a set of principles for how you’ll lead can help you guide your teams’ (and your own) behavior on a daily basis. When you adhere to these principles, you become more predictable, reliable, and likely to be the leader you want to be.

To do this, we encourage folks to commit a set of leadership maxims to paper. A maxim is nothing more than a principle or rule of conduct. I’ve provided a couple of examples of such lists in our Leadership Principles post and our Leadership Lessons from West Point post. I highly suggest you give both of those a read before we proceed.

Coming out of that, we’ll start working on creating a set of leadership maxims for you. What I’m encouraging you to do is create your own set of maxims. (Don’t worry—I’ll help you do so in future posts.)

For a maxim to be effective, it must be simple. No consultobabblespeak. No buzzwords. Ideally, the maxim is rooted in a story that’s deeply personal and meaningful to you.

Sources of inspiration for your maxims can be lessons you’ve learned from a family member, movie quotes, song lyrics, leadership experiences you’ve had, book quotes, or any other situation in your life where you’ve adopted a simple principle for how you want to behave.

The leadership-maxims approach asks you to explore the four aspects of leadership listed above and create maxims relevant to each of those categories (self, thinking, people, balanced life). Once you’ve drafted those maxims, your challenge is to share them with your team, your boss, your peers, and your family, then set about trying to live up to them every day. It’s really hard to do.

Realize your maxims will change over time and as you grow. When I first started out as a young second lieutenant, I had two maxims I would share with any new soldier in my unit:
• Work hard.
• Be honest.

That summed up my leadership philosophy at that time. As I’ve grown, learned, and made mistakes over the years, I’ve added to my list of maxims. They change as I change and as I aspire to be more than I am today.

So why am I encouraging you to go through all this work of articulating your leadership maxims?

First, it helps you set aspirational goals to be a better leader and to continue your personal and professional growth. Second, it helps set expectations for your team about how you want them to behave (which reduces confusion and inefficiency stemming from the perennial question of “What’s on the boss’ mind today?”). Third, your maxims will help you make better decisions more rapidly because you have an established set of principles for how you want to behave.

So, yes, leadership takes effort. But it’s not exceedingly complex. What it really boils down to is knowing who you are as a leader, who you want to be, and being rigorous in how you chart that path forward.

First published July 5, 2023, on thoughtLeaders LLC on LinkedIn.


About The Author

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Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch (Weiser, 2016) and One Piece of Paper (Jossey-Bass, 2011), and co-author of Lead Inside the Box (Weiser, 2015). He’s also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS LLC, a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.