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What Is a Philosophy of Leadership?

By E. Reeder
Updated May 23, 2024
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A philosophy of leadership is a statement or idea that guides how an individual will lead. There is a great deal of variety in the types of leadership philosophies that people can employ. People often base their leadership philosophy on their personal experiences and on the leaders who influenced them greatly. Leadership styles might also be based on the types of tasks that leaders are responsible for, the goals of the organization and the types of people they're responsible for as leaders.

Usually, a philosophy of leadership involves certain values, morals and principles that leaders incorporate into the way they lead the people and organization of which they are in charge. Their philosophy of leadership influences the way they communicate with and handle the people they're leading, as well as the way that they respond to situations or events that might arise. A group of people or an organization can be positively or negatively affected and its morale and its effectiveness can be lowered or heightened by the leadership philosophy of those in charge.

Some academic programs, such as business management, and some training programs, such as military officers’ training, might require their candidates to write their personal philosophy of leadership before graduation. Other people might not be required to write their own, but it might be understood. Most people who are in charge of others develop their own philosophy of leadership over time, which might change the longer they lead. Various types of leaders — such as school principals, police and military officers, government leaders and business managers — will need to develop their own philosophies of leadership.

In general, philosophies of leadership as belief systems translate into the styles of leadership that leaders demonstrate. These styles of leadership are what people in charge use to determine the nature of their decision-making processes and their interactions with subordinates on a daily basis. Although leadership style can be highly individual, there are several types that are predominant.

Authoritarian or autocratic leaders keep most of their leadership power to themselves. They do not wish to get suggestions or ideas from their subordinates. Instead, they are the central focus of leadership and decision-making because they make all the decisions themselves. An autocratic leader might be the dictator of a country or a business manager. Usually, these leaders insist on discipline and unquestioning obedience from those whom they lead and might not be willing to delegate any of their leadership functions or power to those below them.

Democratic or participative leaders prefer to make decisions only after gaining the input and weighing the opinions of their subordinates. These leaders are often comfortable enough with and trust their subordinates enough to delegate some of their leadership responsibilities to them. These leaders might hold meetings with all of their subordinates to discuss issues that affect them before making a decision. They might also take other measures of information, such as surveys of those below them, into account before making decisions.

Laissez-faire leaders do not lead. Instead, they allow what will happen to happen without interference. These types of leaders offer little guidance and few rules to their subordinates. Instead, those below them must make their own decisions.

Transformational leaders try to transform their organization and those who work for that organization to improve in meaningful ways. These types of leaders depend on their personal vision and the vision of the organization to make changes and improvements. Often, a leader using a transformational style will possess charisma and highly developed abilities to interact with and persuade those whom they lead.

Most leaders will use a combination of leadership styles. The type of leadership that people display in calm situations might be different from those used when confronting an emergency situation. For example, a participative leader might need to temporarily employ an authoritative leadership style to handle the firing and replacement of a subordinate who has embezzled money from the company. Overall, better leaders strive to achieve the goals and objectives of the group while taking the needs of individual members into account, which can be a delicate balancing act.

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