Developing Your Own Philosophy of Leadership

By: Mike Slack*

A few years ago, a friend of mine applied for a job at United Way of Central Oklahoma where I was, at the time, on staff. To our great fortune, she got the job. After she started working there, we talked about the interview process. She said that near the end of her final interview, the President/CEO asked if she had any questions. I can remember almost word for word how she recounted her response, “So, I asked those questions you always are supposed to ask at that point like, “What is your philosophy of leadership?””

Wait a second, what?, I silently protested. She made it seem ordinary but to me it was quite a profound question! My mind raced with thoughts: What does that even mean? I wonder what our CEO’s response was? I wonder what my friend’s philosophy is? Then, my reflection focused inward, What would my response be if I were asked that question? What is MY philosophy of leadership? Am I even qualified enough to have one?

Probably like many of you reading this blog, I have had leadership positions through both volunteer and professional settings. I knew leadership was critically important. And I certainly had some thoughts about what it meant to be a good or bad leader. But, at that point, I had never gone through the process of trying to come up with a framework for my understanding of leadership.

This was a pivotal conversation for me because it codified a desire, which was already present, to think more intentionally about what it means to be a leader. Doing so, I believe, helps me to be a better leader and achieve my overall professional goal which is to lead an agency that advocates for and improves the lives of children.

So, what is a philosophy of leadership, exactly? It is the attitude and principles that guide your behavior when interacting with others. More than your management style which governs how you behave, your philosophy of leadership describes what you value. It’s the filter through which you approach your work.

My philosophy has three filters or lenses that, when combined, create my framework for leadership. Each one is part attitude and part principle. These three things have come to me from inspirational leaders I have been around, not-so-inspirational individuals in leadership positions, and literature written by great thinkers and leaders.

The three lenses are: Servant Leadership, A Coach’s Mindset, and the Philosophy of Pragmatism.

What do each of these things mean?

While the phrase Servant Leadership is widely used, the term itself was coined by Robert Greenleaf. He describes the approach of the servant leader as one who “…begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, first. The conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. This person is sharply different from the one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power, drive or to acquire material possessions.” I strive to be leader because that’s the way I can best help the world be a better place. At my worst, I am striving for leadership because of a desire for power, possessions, or a position. However, at my best, I am taking on roles that amplify my ability to make a positive impact in my community. Being a servant leader means that I judge myself against a self-imposed standard: my actions should serve (help) my co-workers, supervisors, members of my team, our customers (donors/supporters), and our agency’s clients.

While servant leadership is the foundation, the day to day mindset that governs my philosophy of leadership is that of a coach. There are a number of clear parallels between a good leader and a coach. The coach selects the players, trains the players, identifies resources that are lacking, develops the strategy or vision, provides clear and immediate feedback on performance, and the coach is actually on the sidelines while the players execute the game plan. It’s likely that many of these responsibilities seem intuitive to a good coach or a leader. There is one key performance management responsibility of the coach which might be less obvious… emotional management. This concept was first elevated to my awareness while watching an interview with the Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin before a Super Bowl appearance a few years back. He noted that one of the major challenges of coaching is that players are extremely emotional people. WHAT?, I thought with confusion, Emotional people? They should deal with their emotions and get their jobs done! A few years later I found myself in a situation where I wished I had taken this statement more seriously. I was in the men’s locker room at the high school where I was a teacher and soccer coach trying to console a freshmen who wasn’t getting much playing time. Understanding how disappointment, anger, happiness, depression, anxiety, enthusiasm, fear, and other emotions affect performance (and what you can do about it!) is a key aspect of both a coach and a leader. Books that have been helpful in developing this knowledge and these skills include Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, both by Daniel Goleman.

The final component is the philosophy of pragmatism. Sometimes I hear people use the word pragmatism to mean that someone is practical. While pragmatists might be practical, I mean something more specific. A true pragmatist is supremely focused on one thing: their goal. They are so committed to their goal that they are open to using a variety of tactics to achieve that goal. Good leaders need to be flexible enough to adapt their approach to the myriad persons and situations in which they encounter. A leader must analyze a situation and determine not just the course of action that the individual wants to take. But, instead, to take into consideration what course of action is most likely to achieve the result that is desired. The original text on this philosophy was written by the polymath William James and is entitled, Pragmatism. It’s a deep but very good read.

These lenses, put together, form my philosophy of leadership. The purpose of laying out these three components is not to convince you that my way is the best way. Instead, I hope that by reading these thoughts you consider what is important to you and begin developing your own philosophy of leadership. Pay attention to those leaders who inspire you, be honest with yourself on where you need to develop, and commit to acquiring the knowledge and developing the skills to become the leader you would want to follow!

*Mike Slack is Vice-President of Development for Oklahoma United Methodist Circle of Care, a nearly 100 year old child welfare nonprofit. In addition, Mike is Principal of Messy Consulting and works to create clean, systematic, and purposeful solutions for nonprofits.

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