Defining Your Leadership Philosophy on One Piece of Paper

Blank Piece of PaperWe make leadership way too difficult.

We write entire books on it. We teach it in universities and MBA programs. We dedicate entire fields of study to it. We create massive corporate programs to foster it.

Here’s the thing – it’s really not that hard.

Sure, we teach leadership too (it’s our Leadership Maxims program) but we come at it from the standpoint that leadership is an intensely personal sport. Every leader is different. The only thing that’s the same is every true leader needs to understand, articulate, and continuously improve their leadership philosophy.

The concept of writing your personal leadership philosophy is the very core of my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership  (CLICK HERE to buy your copy now).  To give you a sense of how the method works, let’s explore what it means to write a leadership philosophy.

Over the next five posts (this one included), I’m going to cover our approach to capturing your leadership philosophy on a single sheet of paper. I’ll also share some of my own personal leadership maxims.

To get a holistic view of leadership, you need to look at four aspects of it:
Leading yourself: what motivates you and what are your “rules of the road?”
Leading the thinking: where are you taking the organization and what are your standards for performance?
Leading your people: duh. This is the one we always focus on usually to the detriment of other aspects.
Leading a balanced life: if you’re burned out, you’re worthless. How do you define and achieve balance?

For a quick video overview of these topics, check out this footage from a panel I was on to discuss the topic of leadership. It will give you a quick set of stories on the topic. In addition to that footage, here are video excerpts from a keynote presentation on this topic.  Beyond that, we need to dive in deeper into the leadership maxims approach. Here goes:

Let’s start with examining the difference between management and leadership. It’s really quite simple: you manage THINGS but you lead PEOPLE.

Budgets, materials, programs, projects, etc. all get managed. It’s a checklist of tasks to cover off on. Results are typically pretty easy to measure. The problem is we want to take a similar checklist approach to how we deal with people.

People are funny. They’re unpredictable. They’re emotional. They’re ambitious. They’re irrational and complex. You need to understand all these aspects (and then some) and somehow get them to do difficult things because they want to do them. Tricky.

It’s this ability to point the way and inspire that serves as the foundation of leadership. You can’t do that with a checklist. Instead, we’ve found establishing a set of principles for how you’ll lead can help you guide your teams (and your own) behavior on a daily basis. When you adhere to these principles you become more predictable, reliable, and likely to be the leader you want to be.

To do this, we encourage folks to commit a set of leadership maxims to paper. A maxim is nothing more than a principle or rule of conduct. I’ve provided a couple of examples of such lists in our Leadership Principles post and our Leadership Lessons from West Point post. I *highly* suggest you give both of those posts a read before we proceed.  Coming out of that, we’ll start working on creating a set of leadership maxims for you.  What I’m encouraging you to do is create your own set of maxims (don’t worry – I’ll help you do so in the next few posts).

For a maxim to be effective, it has to be simple. No consultobabblespeak. No buzzwords. Ideally the maxim is rooted in a story that’s deeply personal and meaningful to you.

Sources of inspiration for your maxims can range from lessons you’ve learned from a family member, movie quotes, song lyrics, leadership experiences you’ve had, book quotes, or any other situation in your life where you’ve adopted a simple principle for how you want to behave.

The leadership maxims approach asks you to explore the four aspects of leadership listed above and create maxims relevant to each of those categories (self, thinking, people, balanced life). Once you’ve drafted those maxims, your challenge is to share them with your team, your boss, your peers, and your family then set about trying to live up to them every day. It’s really hard to do.

Realize your maxims will change over time and as you grow. When I first started out as a young second lieutenant I had two maxims I would share with any new soldier in my unit:
– Work hard.
– Be honest.

That summed up my leadership philosophy at that time. As I’ve grown, learned, and made mistakes over the years, I’ve added to my list of maxims. They change as I change and as I aspire to be more than I am today.

So why am I encouraging you to go through all this work of articulating your leadership maxims? First, it helps you set aspirational goals to be a better leader and to continue your personal and professional growth. Second, it helps set expectations for your team on how you want them to behave (which reduces confusion and inefficiency stemming from the perennial question of “What’s on the boss’ mind today?”). Third, your maxims will help you make better decisions more rapidly because you have an established set of principles for how you want to behave.

So yes, leadership takes effort but it’s not exceedingly complex. What it really boils down to is knowing who you are as a leader, who you want to be, and being rigorous in how you chart that path forward.

In our next post we’ll do just that. We’ll discuss how you’re going to lead yourself.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

7 Responses to “Defining Your Leadership Philosophy on One Piece of Paper”

  1. […] you run off and throw together a bunch of buzzwords and call it a philosophy, I encourage you to articulate your personal leadership philosophy in a simple, concise way. Once you’ve defined that philosophy (which needs to be uniquely yours) you’re in a […]

  2. […] you run off and throw together a bunch of buzzwords and call it a philosophy, I encourage you to articulate your PERSONAL leadership philosophy in a simple, concise way. Once you’ve defined that philosophy (which needs to be uniquely yours) you’re in a position to […]

  3. shibumimc says:

    Leadership is 1/4 “philosophy” and 3/4 demonstrating and doing. Your definitions sound like the job description for a university dept. head. And it is clear you have never had any experience wearing a uniform – or faced real issues in the face.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Wow. Really?

      I agree with you that the philosophy is but a small part of leadership but you need it before you can actually demonstrate/do. Clearly this post is about DEFINING the philosophy because without that definition, your demonstrate/do will be aimless, inconsistent, and confusing. As far as definitions being for a university department head, I’m not sure where you’re going to school but those definitions, in my experience, clearly apply in the vast majority of corporate and military environments.

      And normally, I’m pretty genteel and proper when replying to comments unless they’re assy. Yours is assy. I spent 9 years in the uniform of the United States Army between my four years at West Point (unarguably one of the world’s premiere institutions for learning leadership) and 5 years as an armor officer in the United States Army. I invite you to educate yourself on my background before making asinine and unfounded assertions about my experience (

      I won’t make any comments about your experience or skills as I have no basis to make them. That said, your comments say more about your character and worldview than I think you realize.

      Have a lovely day. *MUAH*

  4. […] throw together a bunch of buzzwords and call it a philosophy, I encourage you to  articulate your PERSONAL leadership philosophy in a simple, concise way. Once you’ve defined that philosophy (which needs to be uniquely yours) […]

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