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September 17, 2021

Writing a Personal Leadership Philosophy Will Make You a Better Leader

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Examine how and why you lead so that others follow your lead.
Professional Learning
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Credit: Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash
We all have a leadership story: Perhaps, like me, you led a group of 8th graders on a trip abroad to Nicaragua, or maybe you organized the school’s green initiative, petitioning for grants and mobilizing students and colleagues to plant a new garden. No matter your experience, you’ve flexed your leadership skills at some point—and you have a story to tell. 
To become the leader you dreamed of becoming, it’s important to share your leadership story not only as a reflection piece but as a guide for colleagues and staff to get to know the real you. Vicki Bautista and Gretchen Oltman, coauthors of What's Your Leadership Story? A School Leader's Guide to Aligning How You Lead with Who You Are, developed a framework to coax out the dormant leadership stories inside all of us.  
They recommend that educators—particularly school leaders—draft, revise, and reflect on a working Personal Leadership Philosophy (PLP): a one-page document to identify your unique characteristics, traits, and attributes. It should be a reflective summary of the leadership style, core values, mindset, and real-life experiences that have shaped you into the leader you are today. 
According to the authors (see p. 13), it takes eight steps to bring this ambitious document to life.
  1. Identify your leadership style.
  2. Define your core values.  
  3. Engage with your mindset.  
  4. Explore your real-life experiences.  
  5. Create a draft of your leadership philosophy.  
  6. Reflect on your leadership philosophy.  
  7. Revise your leadership philosophy.  
  8. Share your leadership philosophy. 
The first four steps require you to recognize some specific traits about yourself, your style, and your dispositions, while the last four encourage you to put what you know about yourself into words that will form your philosophy.
While the list may seem lengthy, Bautista and Oltman give it the appropriate space it deserves, dedicating an entire chapter to each milestone. 
What is most important when penning a PLP, according to a recent ASCD interview with Oltman, is to identify the moments in your life that made you a leader and think about how and why those moments forged your leadership story.  

A Trip to Remember

I was a 23-year-old teacher chaperoning a sizable group of middle schoolers through their first service-learning experience abroad. On our way to a Managua hotel, disaster struck: While the bus driver filled a diesel tank and the students and I ate at an adjacent pit stop, thieves reached in through an open bus window and stole some of the students’ backpacks.  
The ensuing mayhem could have derailed even the most prepared chaperone.  
“I think I left my passport in my backpack,” one student said. 
“They took my meds,” said another.  
My fellow chaperones and I looked at each other and knew immediately what needed to be done. My look communicated it all: I’ll keep the other students calm; you do what you do best.  
I didn’t know it at the time, but my colleagues understood my leadership style. They realized I wasn’t going to vocalize or demand action. I showed, as the authors make clear, classic enabling leadership. It didn’t mean that my style was necessarily wrong, but that I needed motivated self-starters around me who knew how to complete a task. 
Knowing this about myself now is empowering. It means being prepared for the next emergency that work or life may spring on me. It means surrounding myself with people who I trust will know my leadership style and know what to expect and perhaps how to react.  
For this reason, developing and sharing your PLP will benefit not only yourself and your colleagues, but also the students in your care. 

What’s Your Leadership Style?

Think back on your life to similar moments and ponder how you felt and what actions you took. These moments, and the ensuing reflection, will help you get started on the first step to a working PLP—identifying your leadership style. 
Bautista and Oltman nudge readers in this direction by providing the following assessment. Circle the statements that most reflect your leadership style.  

Directing Leadership Style  

  1. I continually supervise my staff to ensure they complete their work.  
  2. I think staff are generally lazy or don’t take responsibility for their work.  
  3. I think staff must be given rewards or punishments in order to stay motivated.  
  4. I think my staff rely on my opinion to feel secure in their job or to gain approval for their work.  
  5. I am the person who is ultimately responsible for the achievements or failures of staff.  

Guiding Leadership Style  

  1. I allow staff to be part of the decision-making process. 
  2. I provide guidance or advice to staff without pressuring them to do things my way.  
  3. I frequently communicate my support to staff.  
  4. I try to help my staff set their own goals.  
  5. I like to help staff members find their passion.  

Enabling Leadership Style  

  1. In complex situations, I let staff work problems out on their own. 
  2. I try to stay out of the way of staff as they do their work.  
  3. I think staff are the best judges of their own work.  
  4. I give staff complete freedom to solve problems on their own.  
  5. In most situations, staff request little input from me and make decisions on their own.  

Instructional Leadership Style  

  1. I have up-to-date knowledge of curriculum, instruction, and student assessment practices.  
  2. I provide staff with instructional resources related to instruction and assessment.  
  3. Staff would say I empower those around me, promote collegiality, and can be trusted.  
  4. I am a competent planner. I am able to identify goals, recognize changes that need to occur, observe my environment, and involve the appropriate people in the decision-making process.  
  5. I feel comfortable delivering feedback to help create an effective learning environment.  

Servant Leadership Style  

  1. I always put staff first, even if it involves self-sacrifice.
  2. I am sensitive to the personal concerns of staff.  
  3. I help staff grow and succeed by empowering them to autonomously decide when and how to complete their own tasks.  
  4. I have high moral standards and act with moral integrity.  
  5. I feel most comfortable engaging with staff at the interpersonal level. 
Source: Oltman, G. & Bautista, V. (2021) What's your leadership Story? A school leader's guide to aligning how you lead with who you are. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

No one style is better than another. Each works differently according to the situation, the authors explain. Moreover, people will often possess a blend of many styles and call upon each one when necessary. 
I was lucky to have had capable chaperones with me on that fateful day in Nicaragua, colleagues who understood my hands-off approach. It all turned out well in the end: As I calmed the rowdy students on the bus, explaining the situation to them, a chaperone made the necessary calls home (thankfully we had collected passports ahead of time and stashed them somewhere safe). 

Where to Take It from Here

You may be well on your way to understanding your leadership style. But you are not done. I encourage you to use What’s Your Leadership Story? as a guide, following the recommended steps so you come to appreciate how and why you lead. You won’t be alone in benefitting; your staff may even thank you for sharing the document with them and providing a window into your leadership.  
So, what’s your leadership story? 

Esteban Bachelet is the associate writer of Educational Leadership magazine.

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