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Do you want to make a difference in the lives of others? Do you want to change the world?
To do anything meaningful, you’re going to have to work with people. And if you’re working with people, you need to know how to lead them. To lead effectively, you must cultivate a cohesive philosophy of leadership—a system of values and core principles that will inform your decision-making.
In this article, we’ll discuss what a philosophy of leadership is, why it’s important, and provide four examples of philosophies to help you decide which one is right for you.
What Is a Leadership Philosophy?
If you want to accomplish anything on a large scale, you have to learn to lead a team. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. There are multiple factors to consider when figuring out which leadership style works for you, such as the kind of team you’re leading, the goals and values of your organization, and perhaps more importantly, the kind of person you are.
Your style should, in turn, be underpinned by your philosophy of leadership—a system of beliefs and values that will guide your actions and key decisions. You don’t want to be haphazard and inconsistent in your approach to leadership. Your team will have more respect for you if you make decisions based on core principles that don’t change simply because the circumstances have changed. Therefore, cultivating your own philosophy of leadership is the key to becoming a strong, effective leader.
Authoritarian or autocratic leadership is characterized by strict supervision and total obedience. A leader enacts this style by giving orders and expecting immediate compliance without explaining their reasoning. They control the situation very tightly, and if subordinates fail to follow orders, they’re faced with threats or punishment.
The philosophy behind an authoritarian leadership style is that subordinates require supervision at all times, or else they will fail to work effectively. The authoritarian approach works well for organizations where there is no scope for creativity and errors.
Authoritarian leadership creates harmony only if the leader is able to empathize with others, and is aware and in control of their emotions. Without these microskills, authoritarian leaders will create discord by making group members feel intimidated and putting them in a bad mood because of their demands and lack of empathy.
One example of an authoritarian leader is Bill Gates. Gates built one of the most successful tech companies to date because of his authoritarian leadership style, characterized by high demands and quick turnarounds. However, a number of people have recently come out to describe him as demanding, impatient, unrelenting, and condescending, reporting that most employees were dissatisfied with his leadership because he created discord in the workplace.
TITLE: Primal Leadership
AUTHOR: Daniel Goleman
Servant leadership is a philosophy of leadership in which the leader’s main focus is on the growth and well-being of his subordinates. Leaders who employ servant leadership in business operations of their organization put employees’ interests before those of the company.
Your goal, as a servant leader, is to help others develop the skills and knowledge to take initiative and work independently. Instead of telling employees what to do, ask them what you can do to help them achieve the desired results. Instead of giving instructions, make suggestions. Ask, “Have you considered X?” Don’t solve problems that employees can solve themselves—when someone has a problem, ask, “What do you recommend?” rather than giving a solution. In the long run, this is much more effective and much better for the company than telling employees what to do or doing things for them.
However, for servant leadership to work, your subordinates must have a high level of trust and empowerment. If your employees aren’t empowered to make their own decisions, and you don’t have enough trust in them to take initiative on their own projects, servant leadership is probably not for you (yet). However, you can work your way toward servant leadership by creating the four necessary conditions for an empowering environment:
Condition #1: Trust.
Members of a group need to be both trusted and trustworthy for everyone to feel empowered.
Trustworthiness is the combination of ability and integrity.
Ability includes not only job-specific knowledge and skills, but the ability to see the big picture, alternate between different viewpoints, and work well with others.
Integrity includes the ability to face problems in a direct but compassionate way, the ability to see a number of different alternative solutions to a problem, and the ability to live according to universal principles.
To cultivate such a high level of trust in your subordinates, both are necessary. A person who’s honest and kind, but not competent, isn’t trustworthy. Conversely, a person who’s competent but lacks integrity is also not trustworthy.
Condition #2: Enthusiastic Team Members.
Part of feeling empowered is keeping yourself motivated and enthusiastic. That’s because an environment founded on the first condition (trust) is an environment in which you’re responsible for your own work—you won’t have supervisors hovering to make sure that you’re doing what you’re supposed to. In other words, trust and freedom are empowering, but they also come with responsibility.
If you’re the leader, you ask yourself questions like: Do I let others do their work their way, or do I try to force my own ways onto them? Do I give people enough space? And, conversely, do I check in with them often enough? In other words, am I striking the right balance between freedom and support to empower and motivate my group members?
Condition #3: Systems Suited to Goals.
When systems don’t align with the purpose they’re supposed to support, no one feels empowered. For example, if you want your salespeople to work together, but your system rewards the individuals who make the most sales, then your systems don’t support your purpose—instead of working together to get better results, your salespeople will drag down each other and your organization.
So, ask yourself what systems are keeping you from reaching your goals (whatever goals those are), then ask which of those systems you’re in a position to change or influence. Once you’ve answered those questions, you’ll know where to direct your energy.
Condition #4: Accountability.
Accountability requires checking your actions and others’ against the goals and guidelines your group has laid out for itself. Therefore, it’s crucial to make sure that your group planning includes the specific criteria for determining responsibilities and assessing results.
As you continually check your decisions, actions, and results against the agreement, you’ll develop a progressively better sense of how you’re doing, and how you can do better.
TITLE: First Things First
AUTHOR: Stephen R. Covey
A visionary leader creates group harmony by motivating people to move toward a shared goal or dream. A leader enacts this style by articulating the dreams and goals of the team but not specifying how they’ll reach those goals. They inspire the team to move in the right direction while leaving room for them to develop their own way forward through innovation, creativity, and collaboration.
Visionary leadership is similar to servant leadership in the sense that subordinates are empowered to make high-stakes decisions and take initiative. However, the philosophy underpinning visionary leadership is slightly different. A visionary leader empowers subordinates because it gives them the space to focus on the end goal, whereas a servant leader’s main focus is on the growth and well-being of the people.
Experts note that one of the downsides to relying on visionary-style leadership is that it’s possible to lose short-term focus. These leaders are often so focused on moving toward some future goal or dream that they can become distracted or unmotivated to complete goals or tasks that are more immediate. Consequently, the team may fall behind on deadlines or benchmarks.
The final philosophy of leadership we will discuss is extreme ownership by Willink and Babin. The key premise of this philosophy is that a leader should find a delicate balance between different dichotomies: You must be compassionate yet pragmatic, humble yet confident, bold yet cautious.
Dichotomy #1: Care About Each Individual, but Make Sacrifices for the Group
As a leader, you should care about every member of your team as if they were part of your family. Mutual trust and support allow each member of the team to perform at their best, and feelings of camaraderie are a potent source of motivation.
However, even if you care about your team more than anything, a leader must inevitably make decisions that put individual team members in harm’s way for the sake of the mission.
Dichotomy #2: Take Responsibility for Your Team, but Don’t Do Everything
The second dichotomy is the balance between hands-on leadership and prudent delegation. Because a leader can’t do everything, the best way to take responsibility for your team’s success is to endow other people with responsibility.
However, if you delegate all your responsibilities and assume that someone else is solving every problem, you could be unknowingly steering your team toward disaster.
Dichotomy #3: Maintain High Standards, but Don’t Push Too Hard
The third dichotomy is the balance between demanding high performance and nurturing your team’s growth. Since you’re accepting extreme ownership for your team’s overall success or failure, it’s your responsibility to ensure that every team member is performing at a high standard.
However, if you push your team too hard, demanding absolute perfection, you’ll destroy your team’s morale and hinder their performance.
Dichotomy #4: Defer to Others, but Trust Yourself
The fourth dichotomy is the balance between trust in others and confidence in your ideas. The best leaders can take advice as well as they give orders. Being a leader doesn’t always mean telling people what to do—often, other team members are better equipped than you to make the right decisions.
However, if you’re too reliant on others and lack confidence in your leadership, you may end up following others’ lead in situations where you know better.
Dichotomy #5: Rush Forward, but Be Careful
The final dichotomy is the balance between forceful action and cautious risk management. Find a way to rush toward your goal as ruthlessly as possible while maintaining the presence of mind to guard against careless mistakes.
You could also frame this dichotomy as the need to find the right amount of courage—not too little, but not too much. You need courage to take action, but it’s just as necessary to fear things like temptation and failure so you can work to avoid them.
TITLE: The Dichotomy of Leadership
AUTHOR: Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
Your philosophy of leadership will come to define your organization as a whole. To be just and effective, your philosophy must be underpinned by overarching values and principles, and you must stand by them in all your decisions and actions.
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