13 Components of an Effective Leadership Philosophy

Named by Inc. as one of the top 100 leadership speakers, Shelley Row, P.E., is an engineer and former government and association executive. Shelley’s leadership work focuses on developing insightful leaders who can see beyond the data.

As a leader (and most people are leaders in one way or another) you lead by a set of principles that you may not have thought through intentionally.  collectively these principles form your leadership philosophy.  That philosophy guides you every day and is shaped by the good and bad examples you experienced, the books you read, and the resources you consult.  Here are some key considerations for establishing your leadership philosophy.  Without them, your work can suffer from indecision, wishy-washy communication, and drift. 

Model the behavior you want from your team.

A leader that doesn’t “walk the talk” loses respect quickly. But one that sets an example cements the vision of the organization with concrete inspiration to follow. 

Set your strategy wisely.

It’s not enough to have a vision. You have to know the three to five critical success factors needed to achieve the vision.  Strategy flows from these critical success factors. 

For example, when I ran a research program for the US Department of Transportation, our critical success factors were: money (funding from Congress); staff; engaged community (organizations and people with whom we interacted); and impactful projects with a clear federal role. What are your critical success factors? Do your strategy and activities flow directly from the vision? 

Craft feasible budgets.

Can you see your strategic priorities in your budget? If not, you don’t have an achievable, sustainable strategy and you’re sending mixed messages. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

You must be an artful and constant communicator outside the organization, across the organization, and to staff. Tone matters, as does appropriate transparency. A mentor taught me that your message is only beginning to get through when you are exhausted communicating it. 

Establish a meaningful culture.

What’s the feel of your organization and culture? Do people feel good about their contribution? Is there fun at work? Is there humanness and caring at work? 

Treat others well.

A barometer of your leadership is how you treat service staff such as janitorial and maintenance crew, cashiers, and wait staff. Do they feel seen and valued?

video presentation

As a leader (and most people are leaders in one way or another) you lead by a set of principles that you may not have thought through intentionally. 


Provide immediate, constructive feedback.

I’m astonished by the number of staff who have no feedback about their performance. One person said, “I have no idea how I’m doing.” There’s no reason for that. Research shows that the best motivator is immediate, informal feedback on performance or behavior. Give specific, useful feedback in as close to real-time as is feasible. Specific is key. 

Have high expectations.

Expect top-quality performance of yourself and staff (this doesn’t equate to long hours). Don’t tolerate consistently poor performance. Even as a government leader, I terminated employment when necessary (it can be done in government but it’s not easy). When discussing the termination of staff on a panel of leaders, I was asked, “Aren’t you afraid people won’t want to work for you?” My response, “You’re right. The poor performers don’t want to work here, but top performers do.” 

Support staff in development.

Ask, “How can I support you?” That may shock your staff, but ask them what can you do to support their professional development and their current work. 

Notice and acknowledge desired behavior.

Visibly and vocally express thanks for behavior that carries out the vision. 

Take time to think.

Some of the most visionary, compelling leaders I worked with made time to think and reflect. I call it taking a brain break. How do you take a brain break and ensure that you have that thoughtful time? Being busy is not the same as being important. 

Be focused.

As a leader, focus is key. You need clarity on the important work when the urgent work threatens to derail your attention. Prioritize ruthlessly. 

Share control.

You will be uncomfortable giving control to your staff over their work. But if you are clear with yourself and them about expectations, it becomes easier. 

What would you add to this list?


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