The Principles of Leadership

The Principles of Leadership

The word leadership is like the word religion, it means so much that it actually means very little. The broader the definition of the word, the more its meaning is diluted.

This creates a problem.

  • How can you develop leaders if you are unclear on what you are trying to develop?
  • What skills do you need them to have and how do you need them to behave?
  • Do they understand the role and expectations of a leader?
  • Do they want to become one?

That last question often gets a reaction but I ask it because not everyone wants to lead a team. You can’t force someone to do something that they don’t want to do. Training and developing someone that doesn’t want to learn a skill is a waste of time.

These challenges and the lack of a clear definition make it hard to buy leadership development.

Most of the time, what you end up with is management training. Management is about the effective management of resources, risks and tasks to achieve a goal, often involving people. Leadership is about inspiring people to perform to a higher level. It is entirely people focussed. These are simple definitions and there is plenty of crossover between the two but they are fundamentally different.

Management training is not Leadership development

I believe that effective leadership requires an understanding of principles and a desire to change your own behaviour. If you don’t understand the principles of leadership, you’ll struggle to know how and when to behave in various circumstances. If you don’t want to change your own behaviour, how can you ever improve?

Principles are universal lessons that can be applied in any context. If you understand principles, it means that you understand something with enough depth and can apply it in any circumstance. Let me give you an example.

The Amateur vs The Expert

I can’t cook, I’ve never really been able to. I can follow a recipe but that doesn’t make me a chef. A chef understands the principles of taste. They understand what flavours work well together and can apply them where applicable. This means that they could go into your house, open the cupboards and fridge and make something that tastes amazing because they know how to adapt to the circumstances and context that they’re faced with.

I believe that developing great leaders requires a principles-based approach. Anything else is a recipe which will develop basic competence but not expertise.

My view is that if you are a great leader of a business function, sports team or a military unit – you can probably lead. The approach you will apply to leading one team will be useful in leading other teams. It is a question of understanding principles and then applying them in the context you’re faced.

A quick note on competence before I dive into the principles. In order to lead a team, you have to have a basic level of competence for the job that they do. You don’t have to be the best but you need to be competent in order not to undermine yourself!

I believe that there are ten principles of leadership which I have detailed in these slides.

If you can understand these and apply them irrespective of the context or situation you’re faced with, you’ll be effective no matter what situation gets thrown at you.

The following are a few points that build on the principles as I often get challenged on how these fit into the list of ten.

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Visionary Leaders

I believe that great leaders are visionary. They have a vision for the future and lead people towards it. Think of Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’ speech and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’. These people knew what they wanted to achieve and inspired people to help them achieve it. I believe that this is an element of clarity because visions clearly articulate the future.

Leaders are Learners

I believe that leaders are learners and that this falls under ‘drive’. Leaders are dissatisfied with the status quo. That includes their own knowledge of the world. They read voraciously in an attempt to understand the lessons from history of find tips from how other people have handled similar situations. I have found enormous value in stoic philosophy, Donald Robertson’s book has been the best thing I’ve read this year. I wouldn’t have found it if I didn’t believe in this myself and follow my own advice.


Lastly, I think that leaders have to want to change and improve their own behaviour. This relates to the point above but I think goes beyond learning and into action. Leaders will gladly accept feedback from their leadership, peers and subordinates. They hold the mirror up to themselves and challenge their own behaviour. They use this information to learn and improve.

I have found journaling to be immensely helpful in supporting behaviour change. Journaling forces you to reflect on what you did in the past 24hrs.

  • What did you plan to do?
  • What did you do?
  • Was there a gap – why?
  • What’s bothering you or is on your mind?
  • What are you grateful for?

There are many helpful journaling questions and it doesn’t really matter which ones you use, provided you do it. Journaling and self-reflection are extremely valuable in creating any form of behaviour change.

Leadership is hard because it is about behaviour.

You don’t get to decide whether or not you are a leader, other people do. They make that decision based on what you do every single day and how you make them feel.

Leadership development is not delivered in a one hour workshop. It takes time and reflection to develop these skills. Don’t underestimate how challenging this can be and don’t get sold management training in place of leadership development.

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