March 2014

Leading by Design: How to Create a Personal Leadership Philosophy

(and Why It's So Much More Than Words on Paper)

Strong, effective leadership doesn't just happen—it takes thought, intention, and planning. Here, Dennis Haley and Ed Ruggero explain how leaders can create a detailed and personalized leadership philosophy and why doing so is important.

King of Prussia, PA (January 2014) If you're like most Americans in business leadership positions, you've read your fair share of material on the subject, but you've never drawn up a blueprint for the management approach you, personally, want to have. After all, there are about 50 other things on your growing to-do list (and 15 of them should ideally have been handled yesterday). Who has time to think about and create an actual leadership philosophy?

If you really want to become the strongest, most effective leader you can be, says Dennis Haley, you should make time—as soon as possible.

"Creating a personal leadership philosophy (or PLP) is the most valuable use of time I can think of for any leader, at any level, in any industry," says Dennis Haley, coauthor along with Ed Ruggero of The Leader's Compass, 3rd Edition: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Foundation for Success. "That's because this written document acts as a compass: giving you a strong foundation for making decisions, keeping you consistent, and giving your team a head start on knowing how to work for you."

Seriously? Words on a piece of paper can do all that? you might ask. Actually, yes. And the reason is simple: If you can see it, you can be it.

"There's real value in writing down your beliefs and goals concerning leadership," comments Ruggero. "When you clarify this crucial aspect of your professional (and personal) identity, it will be easier to avoid being consumed by the tyranny of urgency. Your work will be more focused and effective, and because your team will have no doubt about what you expect, what you value, how you'll act, and how you measure performance, your PLP will prevent a lot of problems from cropping up in the first place. It's leadership by design instead of by default."

In fact, The Leader's Compass, 3rd Edition was written to help leaders at all levels and in all industries develop the fundamental skills they'll need to lead on purpose and with integrity while delivering results. This engaging business fable tells the story of Guy Cedrick, a young professional charged with overseeing a big project with very little direction. To complicate matters, Guy's team is made up of people who don't respect his authority, who have conflicting expectations, and who don't all play well with others.

With the help of his mentor, Guy develops a personal leadership philosophy and uses it to unite his dysfunctional team and succeed against the odds. The book shows step-by-step how Guy creates his PLP. It also contains several real-life PLPs from business leaders, as well as instructions to help readers create their own.

Here, Haley and Ruggero share eight basic steps to follow when developing your PLP:

Step 1: Take a trip down leadership memory lane. In other words, define what you think an effective leader should be. To get started, think back on the best and worst leaders you've known in your life—they could be coaches, instructors, and bosses, for example. Define each leader individually by writing down what made that person effective or ineffective.

"The purpose of the exercise is for you to define good leadership through your personal experiences," says Haley. "For example, in the book, Guy Cedrick's best leader—a college football coach—showed a true concern for people, was tough but fair, and had clear standards. Guy's worst leader—his current boss—was inconsiderate, rude, refused to deal with poor performers, and took responsibility for only positive results."

Step 2: Create leadership blueprints. Compare and contrast your "best" and "worst" lists, thinking critically about the similarities and differences between each leader. What values, qualities, and guiding principles does each person demonstrate—or not?

"Using your results, write a short paragraph or bulleted list describing both a good leader and a bad leader," Ruggero instructs. "Be as clear and concise as possible."

Step 3: Look in the mirror. Using your descriptions, analyze your leadership style and personality as honestly as possible.

"Which characteristics from your 'worst' list do you tend to display?" asks Haley. "Which qualities from your 'best' list are evident in your work? How important are they to you? To others?"

Step 4: Make the rules. Pick out the top three to five stated or implicit values that you want to guide your actions as a leader (for instance, honesty, commitment, respect, etc.), and put them down in writing as if you were explaining them to your child.

"No need for flowery language here—being straightforward will keep your intentions as clear as possible," promises Ruggero. "Then, state the ethical rules you infer from these values. You might, and in fact probably will, extrapolate multiple rules for each value. As you write, try to frame these rules in terms of leadership principles that you will model and that you want to see in others. Bear in mind that anyone reading these rules should come away with a clear picture of what your priorities are, how you will carry out your responsibilities, and how you will evaluate your own and others' performances."

For instance, the following "rules" Guy writes into his PLP all fall under the heading of "honesty" :

  • I will tell the truth, and I expect others to tell the truth. This includes bringing me bad news when it's fresh, when we can still act on it. Bad news can still be good data.
  • I will actively seek input and advice. Give me your honest counsel. If I don't think to ask, give it to me anyway.
  • I am committed to honest, useful, two-way feedback. If the way I do that isn't working for you, let me know and we'll adjust. The important thing is that we learn.

Step 5: Get personal. If you've approached your PLP with honesty and thoughtfulness up to this point, it will paint a fairly clear picture of how you approach leadership. Now, read over your rules with an eye for identifying anything that might be missing. Be sure to add in your particular likes and dislikes—in other words, your "hot buttons" or "pet peeves."

"Your PLP should shine a light on your idiosyncrasies: things that get under your skin, that someone else wouldn't necessarily be able to tell right off the bat," Haley explains. "For example, tell your team if breakroom gossip or behind-the-back nicknames will attract negative attention."

Step 6: Let it marinate. At this point, you should have the first draft of your philosophy. Review it and then set it aside for at least a week.

"After the week is up, review it again, make corrections, and set it aside for another week," Ruggero says. "Cut any 'dead weight' you find and show preference to short, simple words. This is not the place for jargon or the latest business buzzwords. Keep doing this until you are satisfied with the philosophy."

Step 7: Publish your philosophy. According to Haley, PLPs aren't meant to be private documents. Make sure everyone on your team reads your PLP and understands every word.

"Don't do this once and forget about it," he warns. "Continue to emphasize your philosophy and what it means to your people in their day-to-day work lives. Reference it when laying out goals and formulating constructive criticism."

Step 8: Be patient and lead the way. For many of your team members, receiving and operating under a written set of rules will be a completely new experience. Don't compromise the values you've identified, but don't expect things to change overnight, either.

"Before your team can be expected to make changes to the way they work and behave, they'll need to see you living out your PLP first," Ruggero points out. "Remember, 'Do as I say, not as I do' is not a viable strategy."

"Creating and publishing your leadership philosophy is an opportunity to spell out your commitment to consistent leadership—something that shouldn't be underestimated," concludes Haley. "Remember, in order to be effective in your role, you have to be the type of leader people want to follow. When they know that you have clear standards designed to look after their interests as well as your own, they will be prepared to accomplish any goal, anytime, anywhere."

About the Authors:

Ed Ruggero is the coauthor of The Leader's Compass, 3rd Edition: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Foundation for Success. He has been studying, practicing, and teaching leadership for more than 25 years while helping organizations around the world grow the kinds of leaders people want to follow. His client list includes the FBI, MassMutual, Forbes, Time, Hugo Boss USA, and the CIA, among others. Ed, a West Point graduate and former Army officer, is the author of 11 books and has appeared on CNN, the History Channel, CNBC, and the Discovery Channel.

Dennis F. Haley is the coauthor of The Leader's Compass, 3rd Edition: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Foundation for Success. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1967, after which he served in the Nuclear Surface Navy. Following a tour of duty in Vietnam, he returned to Pennsylvania and joined the family business, transforming it from a five-man operation to a multi-million-dollar company. After the company was sold in 1997, Haley decided to use his military experiences to help others become successful business leaders. He now serves as CEO of Academy Leadership.

Ed Ruggero and Dennis F. Haley have also coauthored The Corporate Compass: Providing Focus and Alignment to Stay the Course.

About Academy Leadership:

Academy Leadership uses principles taught and practiced at West Point and the Naval Academy to conduct in-house training programs, workshops, and keynote speeches to develop leaders who achieve powerful business goals. In short, Academy Leadership specializes in getting extraordinary results from ordinary people. How? By instilling a leadership philosophy that perpetuates self-discipline, honor, and integrity.

Academy Leadership realizes that leadership is often seen as an elusive, mysterious trait. In the business world, people tend to seek "natural" leaders who were somehow born with the leadership gene. They make little or no attempt at leadership training. But in service academies it's accepted that many people have leadership potential, and these organizations work to bring out that potential. Academy Leadership's mission is to help all companies live by these principles.

About the Book:

The Leader's Compass, 3rd Edition: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Foundation for Success (Academy Leadership Publishing, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-972-73238-3, $27.95) is available in bookstores nationwide and from all major online booksellers.