In the busy, sometimes chaotic world of academic leadership, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the managerial tasks of the position and not give adequate attention to the broader, more important leadership duties. To be an effective leader, it helps to have a set of principles—a leadership philosophy—to guide your actions and inspire others.

Developing a leadership philosophy is a deliberate, ongoing process that puts leadership principles in focus on a regular basis. “Very simplistically, the process of developing your philosophy is just about informing yourself, and that’s where so many leaders fall short—focusing on the job and not the self,” says Juston Pate, chief academic officer at Maysville Community & Technical College.

This focus on the duties of the position is understandable considering that most academic leaders emerge from the faculty ranks and that success as a faculty member does not guarantee success as a leader because the roles are so different. While understanding how to perform managerial duties effectively is important, management is just one part of the academic leader’s role. And leadership functions, such as empowering others, fostering cohesive teams, and making decisions that have long-term consequences, are often more complex and ambiguous than managerial tasks. A leadership philosophy can help. Pate recommends the following ways to develop a leadership philosophy:

  • Reflect on what leadership means to you. In workshops that he leads on developing a leadership philosophy, Pate begins by asking participants to individually list 10 elements of leadership and rank the top five in order of importance. He then asks participants in pairs or small groups to discuss their rankings, “and invariably everyone changes something about their rankings” as a result of those conversations.In the five minutes it takes to do this exercise, participants expand their understanding or alter their beliefs. “That’s how easy it is to learn and grow your philosophy of leadership,” Pate says.Pate also recommends reflecting on the following questions:

What is your definition of leadership—without using the words “lead,” “leader,” or “leadership”?

How would you imagine your future as a leader?

What is your goal for leadership?

  • Work with a mentor. A mentor can provide perspective and experience to help develop a leadership philosophy, but working with a mentor is not about implementing someone else’s philosophy because so much of one’s philosophy is influenced by one’s personality. “I’ve had some really great mentors who have really fed my desire to learn,” Pate says.
  • Observe and reflect. Participating in leadership development activities and working with a mentor can enhance one’s leadership philosophy, but much of developing one’s leadership philosophy happens individually. Pate recommends observing situations and reflecting on how you would have handled them and reviewing situations that occur in your life. “If you had a meeting that didn’t go very well, reflect on that and think about what you could have done differently,” Pate says. Or you might observe a situation in which you are not leading and consider what you would have done if you were in charge.Reflecting on events in the news, on books or articles you read, or even on your favorite TV show also can help you develop your leadership philosophy by asking, What would I have done in that situation?“It’s about looking for avenues to grow and expand your philosophy so that your behaviors will reflect what you believe to be important to leadership,” Pate says. “If you become a habitual observer and through that enhance your philosophy, then that philosophy becomes who you are and what you do. The philosophy affects your behavior, and that’s the true power of this philosophy discussion. Leadership is not really about what you know. It’s about what you do. As you develop your philosophy, you’ll be developing your behaviors as a leader, and that’s truly what makes others better.”
  • Make leadership a daily habit. “If you want to move into empowering others, then you really have to get into the leadership skills, and I have yet to see a job description that says, ‘5 percent of your job is to grow yourself as a leader.’ I think that’s where it becomes very difficult for people to cross that divide between management and leadership, in that it’s up to the individual to make it a daily habit to think about leadership and develop [his or her] philosophy. If you think about it as a development of a philosophy and not just a job duty, you’ll be more apt to spend some of your daily time on it,” Pate says.

Your leadership philosophy can change over time based on experience, input from mentors and peers, and leadership development activities, among others. All these factors contribute to your leadership philosophy, which in turn affects your actions.

“If you start looking at these things that you feel are important to leadership and if you think about them and study them enough, then you’re developing your philosophy of what a leader should be. Do that enough and you start to own your philosophy, and your behavior as a leader is altered as well. That’s the thing about behavior. It’s automatic. You don’t have to sit and think, ‘What should I do in this situation?’ If it’s your philosophy, then [your behaviors] are automatic, and that is the power of that philosophy—the effect it has on automatic behaviors,” Pate says.

Reprinted from “Developing a Leadership Philosophy” in Academic Leader 28.12(2012)3 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.