Leadership Philosophy 101: Who Are You?… DeMarco Banter

An older piece I have been messing with for years

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Leadership Philosophy 101:  Who Are You?

Every leader must have direction, a personal vision for where he or she is leading. You might refer to this as a leadership philosophy. Several of you might be thinking “I won’t lead a squadron, a group, or a wing,” but I would say leaders are not defined by their position, leaders define culture, our objective is to build leaders worth following regardless of their positional authority. In order to do that, all leaders, and certainly Officers, senior NCOs and mid-grade civilians in our military, must have a personal leadership philosophy.

Have you ever been part of an organization and the experience soured because you realized the leader was incapable of instilling a larger sense of mission or purpose or motivation beyond self preservation? That leader probably failed to understand the concept of leadership philosophy.

We are all familiar with organizational mission statements used to guide members and focus efforts. When clearly articulated, mission statements help keep a unit on track and pointed toward clear goals, objectives, and outcomes.

A leadership philosophy achieves the same thing on an individual level: it lets people know what you expect, what you value, and how you will act; with the additional benefit of making the organization more productive like a compass it helps keep you, the leader, on course.

Erwin McManus, a lecturer and writer on culture, change, creativity, and leadership says:

“There is a hero within you waiting to be awakened. Some were born to be the hero of a story of epic proportions, others perhaps the hero for one small child…. Both require a hero’s soul and have a hero’s call…The tragedy is if you try to be everything and do everything, you may so diffuse your effect that you will not optimize who … you [were meant] to be and what [you were] created … to accomplish. This is why you need convergence. You need to bring together all of your talents, gifts, passions, intellect, energy, time, and resources and harness them in such a way that you focus on the mission….”[1]

McManus’ point is simply this: you can’t be all things to all people. You need to be you and you need to have a focus. Your philosophy is you…it is who you are, it is your work of art…it is your soundtrack on how you govern your life and guide those you lead. It is the convergence McManus speaks of.

The word philosophy comes from the ancient Greek and literally means “love of wisdom.”[2] Further, a philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.[3] In more casual speech, “philosophy” can refer to “the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group.”[4]

Philosophy is “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge or conduct.”[5]

Simply put, philosophy is a system of values by which one lives.[6]

Leadership blogger George Ambler defines leadership philosophy as— “A set of beliefs, values, and principles that strongly influences how we interpret reality and guide our understanding of influencing humans. It’s our philosophy, our understanding, and interpretation of leadership that affects how we react to people, events, and situations around us.”[7]

Definition is important, but it is more important to understand how your personal philosophy provides a foundation for all other issues—it is your personal foundation or belief in human nature or behavior. S. Chris Edmonds of Organizational Change Consultancy mentions “a leadership philosophy is a values-aligned statement that helps a leader inspire consistent high performance and positive relationships with team members, every day.”[8]

Roger Long of Blue Ox Leadership Consultants in The Netherlands reflects on leadership philosophy:

“I will never forget when I had a new CO (commanding officer) take over the ship when I was an Ensign. He handed to each of us officers a copy of the command philosophy he had written up at PCO School (prospective CO). He told us to read it, but for what I can remember, he never came back to it to discuss it with us as a group or individuals, and I never thought of him as a coach. He was not what I would consider a leader because he never allowed himself to be vulnerable. We made a lot of assumptions of why he did what he did and why he expected what he expected because we could never reconcile his actual behavior – quiet, withdrawn – with what he had written. What I am trying to say is that there is a big difference between writing the philosophy down and speaking about one’s philosophy.”[9]

Long recommends Terry Pearce’s book “Leading Out Loud”. Pearce’s recommendation is to first write your philosophy down, and then tell it as a story. In between- practice, practice, and practice.[10]

Colonel Mark Mattison notes, “A leadership philosophy is simply the beliefs/values/principles that are the foundation of what you believe and how you will lead.  When you are faced with an extremely difficult personnel discipline-type decision, you check with the JAG, your commander, your peer commanders, your First Sergeant, your CMSgt and then close yourself in your office.  What are the values, beliefs and principles that you will use to make the decision when an Airman’s career is on the line?   Those values are your leadership philosophy.”[11]

A philosophy is the North Star for a leader. It guides, paints the targets, fuels the fire, and provides daily direction when properly internalized. A leader who has neither a leadership philosophy nor personal vision is a leader going nowhere.

Your philosophy starts from within you; it draws on your history and your experience combined with values, traits, beliefs, and your own personal style.  At the same time, your philosophy should meet others needs.


What a leadership philosophy is not: It is not a leadership theory or trend. A leader cannot read a book on a topic like Transformational Leadership and in turn say my personal command philosophy is Transformation Leadership, or my philosophy is Good to Great, or The Power Principle. All are stellar books by great authors, but the leader must take these works and incorporate the principles into their leadership identity.

Your leadership philosophy should provide you with a compelling purpose: as a leader this is your commitment to a great cause. Where do you see yourself headed and will anyone follow? What is your vision?  Do you have personal core values and guiding principles?  If not, now is a good time to begin pondering.

What does a leadership philosophy look like? That’s a tough one. There are many leaders who pare their philosophy down to a phrase.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, notes “Humility plus will—that is where the essence of leadership begins”[12]

Andy Christiansen of High Capacity Leaders in Atlanta GA believes leadership is “influence” the intersection of dynamic vision and authentic compassion. Or aggressive action combined with restrained silence.[13]

Jesus’ philosophy: Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.[14]

Apple Inc: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”[15]

S. Chris Edmonds of Organizational Change Consultancy mentions a client that used: “Our leaders demonstrate courage, confidence, and commitment while connecting with and inspiring others to achieve extraordinary results through teamwork.”[16]

I’ve always been one that leans more towards art than science—If you are looking for a more scientific perspective, those are available with a quick Google search for developing a Philosophy of Leadership.

I prefer the artwork and canvas approach. Your leadership philosophy is the canvas on which you will draft your work of art. Part of the piece will include such things as vision, mission, and your values combined with your strengths and weaknesses. Always remember that leaders play to their strengths and find others that fill in for their weaknesses, you can’t do it all.

You have to know who you are as a leader or at least be willing to explore your strengths and weaknesses. You can’t be something that is clearly not in your strength profile. Consider using a tool like Gallup’s Strengthfinder, Enneagram, Judgement Index, Right Path, Myers and Briggs, DiSC or the like.

I can walk through some of my thoughts on developing a leadership philosophy, but understand this is all guided by my own personal experiences and baggage and yours will be different. This is the art of the philosophy.

What are you convinced of when it comes to leading and living?

What do you believe about people, about life, about making groups effective? For me:

I’m convinced being generous is a better way to lead.

I’m convinced forgiving people and not carrying around bitterness is a better way to lead.

I’m convinced having compassion is a better way to lead.

I’m convinced allowing for mistakes as a way to grow is a better way to lead.

I’m convinced listening to the wisdom of others is a better way to lead.

I’m convinced that being honest with people is a better way to lead.

I’m convinced people want to contribute to a positive leader’s vision.

I’m convinced communication increases collaboration toward a stronger command vision.

I’m convinced collaboration increases people’s creative capabilities.

I’m convinced when we get creative we can solve any problem.

As a commander, I believe the most important people in my life, outside of family, are my peers the focus should be on building relationships and networks with peers. Next, focus on and assist subordinates–ensure they have all they need in vision, direction, equipment, and top cover to accomplish the mission. Finally, focus on your boss. Honestly, if the first two are networked and working (peers and subordinates)–he/she has little to be concerned about.

IMG_2722Philosophically… for me, I have always believed a commander’s purpose is to make people’s jobs easier. The commander works for the squadron, for the group, for the wing… not the other way around. The commander sets the vision, defines the mission and the tempo, and then empowers the experts do the real work of the unit. A leader must find a way to leverage his/her authority for those in subordinate positions to allow the work of the mission to accelerate.  Another important aspect is instilling faith in the unit’s members that your philosophy is indeed genuine–instilling a sense that as the commander, as the leader… I am indeed FOR you all as an organization—the commander is “all in” and part of the greater good of the organization not in the position of authority for his personal power and selfish interests.

Harvard Business Review has written extensively on the length of such statements and it is clear from all the info above that the mission, vision, and philosophy of a leader can get lengthy, but it needs to stick. HBR recommends eight words.[17]

My command philosophy is simply…Heroic engagement—improving leadership can change the world.

In the end, a clear and articulate philosophy will help a leader achieve the right results in the right way. Further, the philosophy will help leaders and subordinates navigate the pressures, temptations, and frustrations of day-to-day operations and leave a leadership legacy to move the organization forward in the most positive of ways.

[1] Erwin Raphael McManus, Wide Awake: The Future is Waiting Within You, (New York, Thomas Nelson Inc, 2008), 141

[2]Online Etymology Dictionary”. Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2013-06-21

[3]  “Philosophy”. Mirriam-Webster on-line dictionary.

[4] Anthony Quinton (1995). “The ethics of philosophical practice”. In T. Honderich, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press. p. 666

[5] Dictionary.com, retrieved 2013-06-21

[6] Thefreedictionary.com, philosophy, retrieved 2013-06-21

[8]  S. Chris Edmond, What’s Your Leadership Philosophy? http://drivingresultsthroughculture.com/whats-your-leadership-philosophy/ (June 2013)

[9] Roger Long, Blue Ox Consulting, email dated 19 Jun 2013

[10] Ibid

[11] Mark “Snapper” D. Mattison, Commander, ROTC Southwest Region, email to the author, Leadership Philosophy, 9 July 2013

[12]  Brad Lomenick, The Catalyst Leader: 8 Essentials for Becoming a Change Maker (google ebook), (Thomas Nelson Inc, 2013)

[13] Andy Christensen, High Capacity Leaders, email dated 19 Jun 13

[14] The Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV) http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+10%3A43-44&version=NIV, retrieved 21 June 13

[15] Apple Advertisement, Richard Dreyfuss narration: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFEarBzelBs, retrieved 19 Jun 13

[16] S. Chris Edmond, What’s Your Leadership Philosophy? http://drivingresultsthroughculture.com/whats-your-leadership-philosophy/ (June 2013)

[17]  Eric Hellweg, The Eight-Word Mission Statement, http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hbreditors/2010/10/the_eight-word_mission_stateme.html (June 2013)

6 Replies to “Leadership Philosophy 101: Who Are You?… DeMarco Banter”

  1. I think my philosophy mirrors that of Jim Collins who basically merged 2,000 pages of interviews on leadership and concluded that humility plus will rules the day in the 21st century – that mix creates INFLUENCE in my opinion. But what about great leaders of the past, Geo Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Reagan, etc. did they not share a similar philosophy or mix of humility and will? My impression of what your philosophy is, is that of leaders must apprentice, or put another way a blend of will and apprenticing others to find their unique voice and a leader or “ones leadership Brand.” As their are various personalities, there are multiple leadership brands or personalities too. Your genius as a leader has been to make other leaders better. To help other leaders become the best versions of themselves. You have an ability to customize your approach to “develop” others around you. You provide space, training, challenge, events, projects, encouragement and education to help them shine. Many leaders do nothing other than command, or “command and control.” It’s the coach approach at the expense of the command and control approach. True to form these two styles can be used collectively, but it’s the rare leader who can do that, you can> It’s a branding thing. Command and control is much needed in the military, in military training and during military action. It is also needed during crisis in or out of war. But command and control does not work so well during peacetime and or at home with ones family. Think Major WInters in Band of Brothers or Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan (sorry both Army examples). A coach approach or customized leadership approach is the way forward in this age of boutique wars and generational potpourri (a mixture of boomers, busters, gen x and gen y demands). Various cultures, languages and generations have learned the world will cater to their individual needs. So when a leader does not, he or she lacks gaining INFLUENCE. Put another way, trust is not built, and trust is the foundation for influence. All that to say, I believe your leadership philosophy lands somewhere inside the visionary leader and or coach or customizing leader. Maybe all that is the apprenticing leader.

    1. Thanks Andy… I think you are right… it all boils down to a foundation of trust, combined with influence and humility… and not a false humility. A humility where the leader truly understands there are always folks better, brighter, stronger, and more influential… so it is in how you leverage all of that with whatever authority one can gain to raise others up and make the world a better place. Your examples are spot on… Washington was incredibly humble and led by example—all the while holding to his vision for the United States as a country… it was never about him and his personal power… it was always about the greater good.
      Interesting article I read just this week: http://iqtell.com/2013/06/lead-by-example-the-stuff-leaders-are-made-of/

  2. Col. DeMarco,

    As I’m reaching your treatise here, I’m reminded of the absoluteness of vocabulary itself. As one commits thoughts to paper (or in this case the web), s/he has to commit to the words they know; the words they choose. Later on in this post, you tell us what you’re convinced of, and that got me thinking… and then I read Mr. Christiansen’s comments and realized where the dissonance lies…


    I did a little research (more to do, to be sure) on the word choice. I found that often writers and speakers will use another word interchangeably. Sometimes they choose convince, other times persuade. I see the “Demotivational” poster you have included and I actually experience a blend of the two words. However, let’s take them apart…

    Convince derives from a Latin word meaning ‘conquer, overcome.’

    Persuade derives from a Latin word meaning ‘advise, make appealing, sweeten.’

    I find that most of the time when I’m convinced of something my mind has come to the conclusion; I can settle in on a way of thinking, an expectation of how things should be out there. However to persuade my body to DO what my mind has decided needs doing…that may be another story.

    And then, that leads us to the conundrum…

    How do we – as people who follow leaders – do two things at once:

    1. Understand, agree with, and take on the mindset of our leaders; and
    2. Act on those thoughts to test whether they are sound, if they will stand up to action or fire.

    Thank you, again, for giving us something to think about.

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