What’s your leadership philosophy?

The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

Posts tagged "vision"

What’s your leadership philosophy?

What’s your leadership philosophy?

What’s your leadership philosophy? I’ve asked that question to interview candidates and it has been asked of me. Frequently, the candidate is stumped as was I the first time. Don’t let that question stump you.

Perhaps you’ve worked with people who were especially good or bad leaders. Perhaps you are a reader of leadership books that fill-in-the-blanks around your belief system. Whatever the sources from which you draw, your leadership philosophy is essential to guiding your work every day. It is your North star, your guiding light, the keel that keeps you upright, the rudder with which you steer, your boundary within which you work … and live. What do you believe about leadership? What are the leadership principles that guide your behavior?

This article encapsulates key considerations that formed my own leadership philosophy even though I haven’t successfully embodied all of them all the time. Without them, my work was fraught with indecision, suffered from wishy-washy direction and drifted due to lackluster communication. I offer these ideas as you develop your own leadership philosophy.

  1. Align behavior and strategy with vision (see my last blog). Once she has her vision, a strong leader constantly verbalizes that vision and ensures that her behavior is fully aligned. Nothing torpedoes a compelling vision than a leader who doesn’t walk her talk. Similarly, nothing cements an organizational vision like a leader who aligns her behavior and language while rewarding the behavior of others.
    • Strategy aligns with vision. I’m a believer in vision but vision is nothing without strategies that become actions. I like to identify the three to five critical success factors needed to achieve the vision. Strategy flows from them. For example, when I ran a research program for the US Department of Transportation, our critical success factors were: Money (funding from Congress); Staff; Engaged community (organizations and people with whom we engaged); Impactful projects with a clear federal role. Our strategies flowed directly from these critical success factors. In my current business, there are three critical success factors: 1) Compelling, useful content, 2) Interested, engaged audience 3) Methods to connect the content with the audience (newsletters, books, webinars, keynotes, consulting, coaching). It’s that simple. What are your critical success factors? Do your strategy and activities flow directly from the vision?
    • Budget aligns with strategy. Your strategy should be visible within the budget. Can you see your strategies in the funding within your budget? If not, you don’t have an achievable, sustainable strategy.
    • Communicate, communicate, communicate. The leader is the chief representative of vision and strategy. He must be an artful and constant communicator outside the organization, across the organization and to staff. A mentor taught me that your message is only beginning to get through when you are exhausted communicating it.
    • Staff should “feel” their role in the vision. Leaders frequently assume that staff “get” the big picture. Experience tells me that is rarely true. Staff need support to explicitly understand where their work fits within the organization and vision. With that knowledge, their work is grounded in relevance and they feel more fully a part of the organization.
  2. Work is about people and people have feelings. As an engineer who became a leader, I naturally gravitated to data and strategy. Consequently, my biggest realization was appreciating that all work is inherently human and humans function on feelings, not data. Don’t underestimate the importance of feelings at work.
    • Create a feel for the organization. What’s the feel of your organization and culture? Do people feel good about their contribution? Is there fun at work? Is there humanness and caring at work?
    • Treat others well. How do people feel when interacting with you? One of my barometers of a leader is to observe their treatment of the lowest service staff: janitorial staff, cashiers in the cafeteria, wait staff. Do they make them feel seen and valued?
  3. Tone at the top. What you say and how you say it matters. You, as a leader, are contagious. I’ve worked for a leader steeped in integrity and another leader who bullied and fostered fear. In both examples, overall behavior in the office shifted to mirror the tone at the top. What tone do you set?
    • Transparency. Staff don’t have to agree with your decisions, but it helps if they understand your thought process and considerations. Inevitably, leaders have more information and factors to consider than staff realize. Transparency into your decision-making process broadens understanding and creates trust. Of course, not all the reasons can be disclosed, but the more transparent you are about small decisions, the more likely they will trust you with the big ones that, by necessity, must be less transparent.
    • Provide immediate, constructive feedback. I’m astonished by the number of staff who have no feedback about their performance. One person said, “I have no idea how I’m doing.” There’s no reason for that. Research shows that the best performance motivator is immediate, informal feedback on performance or behavior. Give specific, useful feedback in as close to real-time as is feasible. Specific is key.
    • Be appropriately fair. The brain likes fairness, but a workplace isn’t always fair. My goal instead was to be appropriately Being appropriately fair allowed me flexibility to consider the individual, his circumstances, his past performance, and the context of a specific situation. Frankly, I think this is more fair than the blind application of a generic policy.
  4. Have high expectations. Expect top quality performance of yourself and staff (this doesn’t equate to long hours). Don’t tolerate consistently poor performance. If termination is needed, terminate. Even as a government leader, I terminated employment for several staff (it can be done in government but it’s not easy). When discussing the termination of staff on a panel of leaders, I was asked, “Aren’t you afraid people won’t want to work for you?” My response, “You’re right. The poor performers don’t want to work here, but top performers do.”
    • Support staff in development. “How can I support you?” That’s the question my boss asked me. It was the first time a boss specifically asked how they could be of service to me. Have you asked your staff? What can you do to support their professional development and what can you do to support their current work?
    • Reward the behavior you seek to create. Be crystal clear on the behavior that supports your culture, its tone and the vision for your organization. Then, watch for it, recognize it and reward it – visibly and vocally. The hardest part is having clarity on the behavior you seek to create. Oh…and say “thank you.”
  5. Be thoughtful. I wrote last time about the importance of connecting the dots (read here).  To do that you need time. Not just any time but quiet time for thinking, observing and connecting the dots. Some of the most visionary, compelling leaders I worked with made time to think and reflect. I call it taking a brain break. How do you take a brain break and ensure that you have that thoughtful time? Being busy is not the same as being important.
  6. Be focused. It’s easy to be pulled in a thousand directions at once. As a leader, focus is key. You need clarity on the important work when the urgent work strives to derail your attention. Guard the time to work on the important activities for you and your staff. Prioritize ruthlessly. Stick with the priorities.
  7. Share control. The brain feels comfortable when it has control. Consequently, you will be uncomfortable as you enable your staff to be comfortable that they have control over their work. The biggest problems I’ve had with giving control to staff stemmed from my lack of clarity about expectations and priorities.
  8. What are key attributes of your leadership philosophy? Share them with Shelley here so we can compile a more complete list to share with others. Whatever your leadership philosophy, have one and live it.



In researching this article, I found countless resources on “how to write a vision and mission statement,” “how to execute a vision and strategy,” and “why you should have a vision statement.” I found no articles on how to create a vision in the first place.  An organizational “vision” too often is a set of action items that preserve the status quo. The vision doesn’t simply show up. You have to take action and be thoughtful to have vision and create a vision.

Organizational Vision Connect the Dots

“What do you want your footprint to be?” That’s the question my friend, Susan, was asked when she started her position leading a key government agency in Canada. They went on, “If you were leaving this job in five years, what footprint would you leave behind?” Good question.

As Susan and I organizational vision, we realized that vision requires you as the manager or leader to connect the dots. That means you need to first see the dots and have time to step back and think about how they connect.

Let’s start with seeing the dots. In this case the “dots” are trends, organizational competencies and opportunities that are uniquely filled by your organization. The organizational vision is the place where the three intersect.

Trends. To consider trends necessitates that you zoom out and see the world through a telescope. Zooming out requires accessing and assimilating information from a wide variety of sources. Read news articles, trade journals, magazines, and books. Listen to podcasts, news programs, industry conference sessions, radio and thoughtful people. From that information, look for common threads, emerging issues, and high-level movements. Here are some questions to prompt your thinking.

  • What trends are impacting your industry?
  • What trends are shaping other industries that are tangential?
  • What’s happening at the fringe of the data that may foreshadow the future?
  • What are thoughtful voices talking about?
  • What data can you collect?
  • What is your initial impression of the data? What are different interpretations of the same data?
  • What threads shine through the articles you read in trade journals and the news?
  • For what products or services are clients and customers starting to ask?
  • What is happening in industries outside of your own that point to related trends?

What is the core competence of your organization? Whether public agency, private company or educational institution, your organization serves a function within the bigger industry. When I ran a government office, our role was to incentivize action in areas that would not be fulfilled by traditional market forces. A company I work with has a core competency in the manufacture of highly reliable electronics. Your vision lives at the intersection of trends, competencies and opportunities. What is it for you?

  • What is your organization known for?
  • Does your organization have a specific mandate? If so, what is it?
  • What special role does your organization play within the industry or within a larger organization?
  • What are the key skills that support your organization’s business?
  • How will these skills need to evolve in the future to keep up with the trajectory?
  • What makes your organization stand out from others?
  • How can the core competence be used in new ways?
  • How can core competencies be used for new clients or customers?
  • What niche does your organization uniquely fill?

Now, connect the dots. Project the trends along with your core competency to search for opportunities that your organization is uniquely positioned to fill. There may be a role to be played, a product or service to be created, or spokesperson who needs to speak out.

  • Where are the gaps likely to occur in the future?
  • What will be needed in the future that aligns with your core competencies?
  • Who will need it?
  • Where is leadership needed?
  • What should you do that makes the most impact in terms of revenue or influence?

Don’t constrain your thinking too much with the practical realities needed to implement the vision. That comes next as you refine the vision and the steps needed to create an organization that can execute every day drawing a little closer to your vision. With your vision in mind, consider these three factors that are necessary to implement a vision.

  1. Staff. As you project the trends, consider the evolution of skills needed in the future. What staff skills are necessary to execute the vision? Will existing skills be obsolete or replaced by machines and artificial intelligence? How many staff will be needed? What shifts are necessary to position the staff resources to be ready and capable to drive the vision forward? Do the current staff have the core skills and interests to grow into the future? How can you start now to develop the necessary skills? How can you pique the curiosity of the staff so that they see the needs of the future and respond to them?
  2. Structure. By structure, I mean the processes, procedures, and resources needed to achieve the vision. Are the existing structures adequate to support the vision? Or, are they antiquated and designed for a time that has come and gone? Do they support the type of customer interaction needed for the future? What performance benchmarks will be important in the future?
  3. Culture. I no longer remember where I read it, but it stuck: Culture eats strategy for lunch. Basically, the best laid strategy is useless without a companion culture. As you consider your footprint five years into the future, what culture exists in your office? How does it feel to work there? How do the staff describe the work environment? Is it cutthroat, collegial, trusting, suspicious, collaborative, competitive, fast-paced, considered? What behaviors are indicative of the desired culture? What rewards exist that are tied to the behaviors that are tied to the culture?

Leaders are masters at connecting the dots. They see with a microscope and with a telescope. They are keen observers of their environment and are constantly thinking about the big themes and the implications on their organization. And, there is one more element essential to creating vision. That element is quiet time to consider, digest and think. Collecting and connecting the dots can’t happen in the midst of hurried days, jam-packed schedules and frantic work assignments. Thoughtfulness and creativity live in quiet places: a walk, mowing the grass, driving in quiet, sailing, running, cooking, or anything that allows your mind to wander. To create vision, you need reflection time to discover the footprint you wish to leave in your organization.

How do you ensure there is quiet time in your work for visioning?

 



It started by mistake. As I pondered the topic for this newsletter, I picked up the kaleidoscope on my desk. It sits there to remind me to always see other perspectives. By mistake, I stared through the wrong end. Have you ever looked at the back end of a kaleidoscope? There is no swirl of color or dynamic image. Instead, you only see small fragments of colored bits.

The magic happens when those colored bits spin together into intricate designs. That’s when I realized that it’s the same for an insightful leader.  The colored bits are like their fundamental skills that swirl together to create deeper insights just as the kaleidoscope creates amazing images.

It’s those deeper insights that increase effectiveness and impact.

What then are the fundamental skills of an insightful leader? At the core, insightful leaders appreciate that leadership takes more than just data – it requires objective thinking and an appreciation of feelings – theirs and others. These leaders understand that they need basic skills to manage themselves and to understand other people – whether directing, inspiring, motivating or coaching. It’s not about being agreeable. It’s about being insightful.

After considering all that I learned through experience and through interviews with executives, here is a list of fundamental insightful leadership skills.

Try this Insightful Leader Quiz to assess your fundamental insight skills.

⧠      You understand the need to both think and feel at work.

⧠      You know your values.

⧠      You know and manage your biases.

⧠      You know and use your natural skills effectively.

⧠      You recognize when your natural skills get in the way.

⧠      You manage your blind spots.

⧠      You appreciate the value and limitations of data.

⧠      You listen for and manage both facts and feelings with others.

⧠      You wisely use email, phone or face to face communications

⧠      You know and manage your personal brand.

⧠      You use stories and visual language to connect with an audience.

⧠      You are aware of and manage triggering events for yourself and others.

⧠      You recognize and resolve your stuck stories.

⧠      You know when to decide and when to sleep on a big decision.

How did you do?  Are you comfortable that you have deep skill in a third, a half or more?

Perhaps this quiz struck you as overly introspective and self-focused. We’re more accustomed to thinking of leadership as vision setting, providing direction, establishing tone, managing change, influencing and motivating – all of which are outwardly focused. For sure, those are results of leadership like the beautiful, intricate images inside the kaleidoscope.  But, as with the kaleidoscope, you can’t achieve good leadership without fundamental skills (like the little bits inside the kaleidoscope). It’s the fundamental skills that you swirl together to create insightful leadership.

What fundamental skills do you most need to develop to be an insightful leader? Let me know and I’ll write more about these in future blogs.



It was a dark, stormy night. Rain was falling in buckets as we drove to Houston to pick up my sister at the airport for the holidays. The white lane lines were scarcely visible. We had a general outline of the road but were stressed because of the limited visibility.  Suddenly, the road lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree. The lane lines were raised reflective markers and they glowed through the dark rain like beacons. The road was clearly visible.  There was no question that we were on our path and our relief was palpable.

Your plans for 2019 are like the road. Perhaps you set your goals and they are completely clear in your mind. But how well have you communicated those goals to staff?  Even if you see clearly, your staff may not. They may be generally on the right road but without clarity, they can feel the stress of uncertainty and that wastes energy and time. When your goals are crystal clear, your staff is relieved of that uncertainty and can focus on execution. It’s like having the road to their goals lit up with reflective markers.  How do you bring that goal clarity into your workplace?

  1. Set clear goals. Your staff wants to know that you, as the leader, know the direction of the organization. If you haven’t already, take the time to consider your 2019 goals. It’s like picking the route you’ll travel this year just as we picked the road to Houston. When you think about 2019, what course are you on? What are your goals for the year? What are the major activities you intend to accomplish? Write them down now.
  2. Metrics. How will you know that you achieved the goals? I like to ask clients, “What does success look like?” This question is a great way to crystalize your expectations. Success may look like a revenue target, or a target for new clients, or specific behaviors for customer service. Once you know what success looks like, what are the metrics? Maybe it’s financial or maybe it’s that staff manage client calls in an efficient, friendly way. For each goal, write down the metrics or behaviors you associate with your goals.
  3. Share with staff repeatedly. You need goal clarity and so do your staff. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of assisting staff to internalize the same goals. This is a key job for you! You must share the goals and share them again and again, to embed them in long-term memory. Once is not enough. Neither is printing them on a poster and thinking you’re done. Repeated, specific goals, with metrics, are the reflective markers along the way that reduce stress and provide clarity. It’s key for staff to know, really know, the expectations for them and the organization. Clarity eliminates wasted energy on speculation and allows all that energy to be directed into performance.
  4. Report progress. Progress reports demonstrate that you are serious about the goals. Visible reporting of progress reinforces the goal and creates more clarity. It reassures staff that they remain on the right road and that their way forward is still lit with bright lights.
  5. Celebrate success. Divide the goal into chunks and have mini-celebrations along the way. I recently read Chip and Dan Heath’s book, The Power of Moments. They note the success of dividing a big goal into chunks that can be rewarded along the way. The brain likes rewards for meaningful progress. Completion of interim steps encourages one to tackle the next step. What intermediate milestones can you celebrate?

We arrived in Houston safely and with less stress due to the clear, lighted path. You can provide your staff with a clear, well-lit path by identifying your goals and clearly articulating them … regularly. When you do, you reduce their uncertainty and stress so that they can focus on performance. And that makes for a great 2019!