The Comprehensive Guidebook for Your Leadership Philosophy

If you aren’t educating yourself on the stories of great leaders, you’re missing out on the blueprints for your own leadership philosophy. The stories of great leaders unfold within biographies.

In many ways, a biography is a leadership philosophy examined. While a biography contains actions, mindsets, choices, demeanors, and accomplishments, a leadership philosophy defines what, how, and why certain things are done. A biography is an engaging place to begin defining our leadership philosophy.

Philosophy Defined

Philosophy is defined as “a theory or attitude held by a person or organization that acts as a guiding principle for behavior.” Taking this definition, we can break down a philosophy into four key areas:

  • A theory
  • An attitude
  • Guiding principles
  • Behavior

Each of these elements is essential to defining a robust leadership philosophy. The elements deliver an empowering force within great leaders, and biographies offer us a place to begin defining our leadership philosophy.

Establish Your Philosophy through Biographies

To begin, identify who to read about. Think about history. Think about business. Think about art. Pick an area of interest, and determine which names stand out. Who do you admire? Make a list and a plan to learn more about their lives.

In your biography selection, remember to:

  • Select leaders that resonate with you in what they have done and how they achieved their craft
  • Dive into at least one leader, meaning read 2-3 biographies on the individual
  • Be diverse, selecting 2-3 different leaders to broaden your perspective

Developing Your Leadership Philosophy

With the biographies identified, there are points to think about as you read. Thinking through each of the four elements of philosophy is essential, beginning to answer certain questions and writing down insights. This practice will assist in developing your leadership philosophy.

Let’s explore each element and key questions to consider.

Leaders are tested. How they respond, change, and move forward says a lot about character.

A theory: A theory is a working assumption we use in how we lead, collaborate, and solve problems. Our theories are true until we learn something different or they are tested in a way that challenges them. When this happens, we update our theory and move forward. In many ways, our leadership theory is our growth mindset.

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Leaders are tested. How they respond, change, and move forward says a lot about character. In biographies:

  • Note the challenging and successful times and how their theories adapted or remained unchanged.
  • Identify when adapting worked or did not work, and do the same for when no changes were made. In which instances was greater progress made?
  • Understand the circumstances when mind-shifts were made and the corresponding changes.

An attitude: An attitude is a mindset. It is how we approach troubled and positive times. Our attitude drives our relationships along with how we view situations encountered. Another way to view attitude is what others see in our eyes and heart. Attitude is what lights us up or holds us back.

Some leaders are extroverts, and others are introverts. Some fill the room with the presence and others work behind the scenes. In each, an attitude is evident, bringing people together or charting a separate path.

Through the biographies:

  • Identify how attitudes may have evolved through time. What kept attitudes positively focused?
  • Understand what attitudes delivered focus when challenges arose. What refreshed them?
  • Understand what kept attitudes grounded when successes added up. What kept them engaged on the right things in the right way?
  • Working with others, what attitude facilitated progress? What attitude stunted growth?

Guiding principles: Guiding principles are our guardrails and enablers. They guide our actions and interactions while keeping us centered as we work with others and solve problems. Principles will be challenged, but principles are the voices inside that challenge us to make the right choices.

If someone has a biography written about them, they likely encountered insurmountable odds at some point in their life. Equally likely is they experienced very successful achievements and others rallied around their accomplishments. Certain principles guided them well or took them off path. Lessons are learned in both.

As you understand their leadership perspective:

  • Identify principles that kept them making good decisions.
  • Identify principles that kept them from getting caught up in their ego.
  • Identify principles that rallied others around their cause.
  • Identify principles that enabled the pursuit of progress.
  • What principles activated others? Were there principles that sidetracked others?

Principles will be challenged, but principles are the voices inside that challenge us to make the right choices.

Behavior: Behavior is what we do based on our theory, attitude, and principles. Consistency is as important as transparency and trust. Behavior activates, or deactivates, our theory, attitude, and principles. In many ways, our behavior is where our leadership philosophy comes together within our culture and community.

As you read about their career:

  • Understand the behaviors that drove respect and commitment.
  • Understand the behaviors that took them under and then restored their respected status.
  • Understand the behaviors that encouraged others to join their effort.
  • Understand how behaviors were held in check through self-control or accountability of trusted friendships.
  • How did others view their behaviors? Which behaviors engaged others? Which behaviors frustrated others?

Writing Your Leadership Philosophy

Socrates is credited with saying “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Convert this statement to a positive interpretation, “an examined life is worth living.” Biographies are the examination of lives. Examining someone else’s life creates those moments where we examine our own.

Your leadership philosophy defines your legacy by what, how, and why you do certain things. Don’t wait for someone to examine your life after the fact. Spend the time right now to examine how you want to lead and then go lead fully within your philosophy.

Grab a biography and read. Start writing your leadership philosophy and lead with it every day.


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Jon Mertz is a vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. He was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business by Trust Across America in 2014 and 2015 and highlighted as a “Leader to Watch” in 2015 by the American Management Association. Jon recently published “Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders.” Jon’s background consists of an MBA from The University of Texas at Austin and working for companies like Deloitte, IBM, and BMC Software. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the leadership gap between two generations.

  • Jon what a fantastic article for leadership development. This is a veritable blueprint for gaining clarity on the real value of building ‘character’ as aspirational leaders… and when character is grounded by good intention, articulated through intentional promises, demonstrated through intentional actions, and celebrated through intentional results, you have all the elements of an aspirational leader earning, building and maintaining intentional trust relationships – one of the true measures of leadership. Your blueprint of theory, attitude, guiding principles and behaviors is simple, elegant and powerful. Thanks for your wisdom and thought leadership and for sharing this. The world needs more intentionally aspirational leaders. Warmly, David

    • Thank you so much, David! I believe strongly in having a defined leadership philosophy, and biographies deliver real leadership stories from which we can learn and embrace. Character and intentions are big elements. These values are vital. Thanks again, David, appreciate your thoughts.
      Also, what good biography have you read lately? My recent one was Coolidge.
      Thanks! Jon

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