Most entrepreneurs–especially new ones–charge into leadership with a cloud of aspirational adjectives (“inspiring,” “benevolent,” “collaborative”) roiling their brains but no clear idea what those things look like in practice. The result is confusion, as employees try to deduce the boss’s intent (“Am I supposed to take initiative here, or wait for the white flag?”) and grapple with leadership that is situational rather than consistent.
Ed Ruggero is a former Army officer, military historian, and business writer who teaches organizations about leadership, including in programs held at the sites of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Normandy Invasion. Among other things, he helps CEOs and their teams craft personal statements–or what he calls “leadership philosophies”–that codify their beliefs about good leadership and document their commitment to pursue it. The exercise “is meant to get past fuzzy thinking,” Ruggero says. “Writing it down gives you clarity.”
Ideally, everyone working for the leader gets clarity too. A leadership philosophy is, in essence, your operating manual. This is how I think, act, and react. This is how we will work together.
Leadership philosophies typically top out at about 750 words. But length is not important. What matters, Ruggero says, is that leaders give the process of writing one sufficient time and approach it with honest introspection, ideally in collaboration with colleagues.
The documents they produce comprise four sections. Here’s an overview.
1. What I believe about leadership
Principles precede promises. Leaders begin by laying out bedrock beliefs about the role of leadership in general, which can range from “leaders serve others” to “discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment” to “good leaders have followers who do things because they want to, not because they have to.” The beliefs are the outline. What follows colors them in.
2. What you can expect of me
The simple acknowledgment that leadership is a two-way street will surprise and impress many employees. For this part of the exercise, Ruggero asks people to consider other leaders they’ve worked with or heard about whose practices and behavior they most admire. Participants then digest those practices and behaviors into brief statements that they incorporate into their personal credos by adding the words “I am” or “I will.” So, for example, “I will participate fully in every team effort, but will make every effort to delegate responsibility and authority to those who are capable. I will give credit for the accomplishments of each and every team member.”
Leaders can also use this section to lay out aspects of their leadership that remain works in progress. For example, “I am impatient. I know that is both a flaw, when others try to explain things to me, and a strength, in my ability to bring quick closure to issues. I work on this daily.” Such disclosures are reassuring to employees, allowing them to tell themselves “It’s not me. That’s just how she is.” They also create opportunities for employees to safely point out to the leader when she is falling short of her own aspirations.
3. What I expect of you
This section in particular benefits from brainstorming among the leadership team, Ruggero says. Many leaders will agree on the basics: They want employees to display honesty, hard work, respect, promptness, and accountability. But there may also be genuine disagreements. For example, is it OK to present the leader with a problem for which the employee has no proposed solution? How long should employees wrestle with a challenge before seeking help? Philosophies can differ, but by crafting the statements together, leaders at all levels can discuss why one approach or another might be preferable.
One common expectation is that employees speak up when they disagree with their bosses. As with feedback to the leader, this creates a safe space for candor and reduces the likelihood of going down wrong paths. “At McKinsey & Company, one of their expectations is that you have an obligation to dissent,” Ruggero says. “I love that they chose that word.”
4. What attracts negative attention
This final section may not dramatically improve a company’s performance. But it reduces day-to-day stress. Essentially, these are the leader’s pet peeves. Interrupting others. Self-aggrandizement. Gossip. Whining. “Someone who lives with you probably can fill this out on your behalf,” Ruggero says.
The creation and dissemination of a CEO’s leadership philosophy, along with the attendant philosophies of lower-level leaders, “engages people in an ongoing conversation about how we can be a better team,” Ruggero says. If leaders start to deviate from their commitments, then peers or employees can help them correct course. Perhaps a commitment made in the startup phase no longer makes sense as the business scales. For example, it may not be feasible for the CEO of a 500-person company to maintain an open-door policy. The CEO may recognize that when revisiting his philosophy. Then he can remove the expectation from his own document and perhaps ask lower-level managers to add it to theirs.
On the grand level, leadership philosophies keep companies on course and forge healthy cultures. On the granular level, they reduce the time employees waste trying to guess whether the boss will be appreciative or annoyed when they come to her with problems. And they eliminate friction in relationships. Ruggero cites one state government official whose leadership philosophy included a heads-up that “when I get excited, I talk really fast,” he says. “She said, ‘It is OK to ask me to slow down.'”