Finding the words that shape your leadership practice -The critical importance of a leadership philosophy

“…they are just words, a Victorian poem but, they helped me to stand when all I wanted to do was lie down.”

These were reportedly the words spoken by the newly elected President of South Africa Nelson Mandela to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar when talking about the importance of a ‘leadership philosophy’. Of course ‘the words’ were the poem Invictus penned by English poet William Ernest Henley in 1875. They were words that inspired Nelson Mandela during his darkest times and shaped his own leadership practice and expression.

Leaders need to have (and be able to articulate) their own leadership philosophy. It is the hidden part of the iceberg that supports that part of the iceberg visible for all to see. Your leadership philosophy

Developing and being able to articulate the ‘why’ that underpins ‘how’ you lead is the most important work that you can do as a leader. Having a ‘why’ to your ‘how’ is the very foundation of intentional leadership. Your ‘why’ is the North Star that guides and directs everything you do as a leader.

‘Philosophy’ is ‘a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour’. Forming, integrating and then living one’s leadership philosophy is what guides leadership practice.

So what then is your leadership philosophy?

If you haven’t really thought about it then sifting through what guides your leadership practice and motivation will be surprisingly rewarding work. It also might be harder than you first imagine. To be able to articulate in a few choice words ‘why you lead’ is like a distilling process that will take time and reflection before you finally settle on something that will not need further revision.

In a leadership development programme in which I am involved, the pinnacle of the year-long programme is to be able to articulate one’s leadership philosophy. The content, the experiential learning, the coaching / mentoring, the reflection and group activities are all designed to help participants formulate and shape their leadership philosophy which is then shared with the Executive team at a gala dinner to cap the programme and celebrate this journey. The obvious benefit is that the company has released into it clearly focused leaders who have thought deeply about what it means to leads and who it is that leads. The impact is almost immediate and is certainly obvious.

Here would be some helpful reminders for you as you work on your own leadership philosophy:

  • Your leadership philosophy is work done by you, for you in the service of others.
  • It comprises of some simple words or phrases that when spoken, come from within – words that may have started in the head but that have made their way to the heart. These are words that reside in and are spoken from the heart.
  • Your leadership philosophy should be able to be ‘seen’ by others in how you choose to engage, relate and lead.
  • Your leadership philosophy should not change (much) once set; that is why forming it is a long, slow, deliberate and thoughtful process.
  • Once formed and articulated, your leadership philosophy is something that you draw on, lean on and rely on every day (as a leader) and especially in making those tough decisions.
  • Your leadership philosophy helps answer the question: why should anyone be lead by you?

So then, what is your leadership philosophy?

Invictus (by William Ernest Henley)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.


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