There’s no doubt that the quality of leadership has a significant impact on the success of an organization, hence the popularity of leadership development programs.
While leadership experts disagree on some of its tenets, there are certain leadership principles that are commonly regarded as key traits for successful leaders.
Here we’ll take a look at 12 outstanding leadership principles you can implement today, whether you’re the owner of a startup company or a newly promoted supervisor in a longstanding business.
- Have a vision
- Show integrity
- Work on self-development
- Serve others
- Be authentic
- Be curious
- Accept failure
- Cultivate diversity, equity and inclusion
- Be decisive
- Set clear expectations
- Be data-driven
1. Have A Vision
A clear vision provides direction and purpose, both for the leader and their team. It guides decision-making and sets a standard for what is to be achieved.
Amazon, as part of their famous leadership principles, takes this further with their ‘think big’ principle that encourages against small thinking and promotes being courageous and bold to achieve results.
How to show vision as a leader
Imagine Sarah, the CEO of an energy company, who envisions transitioning her company from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources over the next decade.
This vision is both ambitious and crucial for the company's long-term sustainability and environmental responsibility.
To properly develop and communicate the vision, Sarah will:
- Research: She spends time researching, consulting experts, and analyzing market trends to develop a comprehensive vision for the company's shift toward renewable energy.
- Articulate the vision: She clearly articulates this vision: "In ten years, our company will lead the energy sector in renewable sources, reducing our carbon footprint by 50% while continuing to provide reliable and affordable energy."
- Communicate to employees: At a company-wide meeting, Sarah introduces the vision to all employees. She uses clear, inspiring language and presents a compelling narrative about the importance of renewable energy for future generations.
- Is transparent and open to feedback: She remains open to feedback and suggestions from employees and stakeholders, adjusting strategies as necessary while keeping the core vision intact.
In this example, Sarah demonstrates effective leadership by clearly articulating a forward-thinking vision, involving stakeholders at all levels, setting specific goals, and consistently reinforcing the message.
Her approach motivates her team and aligns everyone toward a common, meaningful objective.
For some inspiration, check out these vision statement examples.
2. Show Integrity
As broadcasting legend, Donald McGaggon, once said “Leadership is an action, not a position."
Successful leaders hold themselves to a high standard and live by their and the organization’s values. If leaders aren’t modeling the desired behaviors then it’s unlikely others will express them too.
This is important because integrity earns trust and respect among team members and stakeholders, ensuring that a leader's actions are consistent with their words.
How to demonstrate integrity
Imagine the CEO of a tech company, Alex, facing a challenging situation. The company has developed a new software that promises significant profit but, during the final testing phase, a critical flaw is discovered. This flaw could potentially compromise user data security.
Actions demonstrating integrity:
- Transparent communication: Instead of hiding the issue to proceed with the launch, Alex calls a meeting with the board and key stakeholders to discuss the problem openly.
- Accountability: Alex acknowledges the oversight and takes responsibility, rather than blaming the development team or external factors. He also team members that their efforts are valued and that the delay is in the best interest of the company and its customers.
- Ethical decision-making: Despite the financial implications, Alex decides to delay the product launch until the security flaw is fully resolved. This decision is based on the company's commitment to customer privacy and data security.
- Communicating with customers: Alex releases a statement to the customers explaining the delay, emphasizing the company's commitment to data security and ethical practices.
In this scenario, Alex demonstrates integrity by prioritizing ethical standards and customer trust over short-term profits, taking responsibility for the issue, being transparent with all stakeholders, and taking concrete steps to prevent future problems.
This kind of leadership not only helps in maintaining a good reputation but also fosters a culture of trust and integrity within the organization.
3. Work on self-development
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”—John F. Kennedy, former U.S. president
No matter how much experience you have or how good of a leader you are right now, great leaders know that there’s always continual room for improvement in their leadership style.
Example of continually learning as a leader
Imagine Ava, the Executive Director of a non-profit organization focused on community education. Recognizing the evolving challenges in the non-profit sector and the need for strong leadership, Ava decides to embark on a journey of professional development.
Some steps Ava could take:
- Self-assessment: Ava begins by conducting a self-assessment to identify her strengths and areas for improvement. She reflects on feedback from colleagues, recent performance reviews, and her own experiences to understand where she needs to grow.
- Set specific goals: Based on her assessment, she sets specific professional development goals, such as improving her public speaking skills, enhancing financial management knowledge, and learning more about digital fundraising strategies.
- Enroll in relevant courses: She enrolls in a leadership course specifically designed for non-profit leaders. She also takes an online course in financial management for non-profits.
- Seek a mentor: She reaches out to a seasoned non-profit leader who agrees to mentor her. This mentor provides invaluable insights, guidance, and advice based on their extensive experience.
4. Serve others
“Before you’re a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” - Jack Welch, former General Electric CEO and engineer
Despite the Amazon leadership principles being heavily focused on customer obsession and serving the customers’ needs, a lot of leaders talk about how the position is about serving those who work under them.
This concept, servant leadership, flips the traditional shareholder-customer-employee pyramid on its head, arguing that putting employees first is better for profits in the long run as you’ll attract the best talent and are better positioned to manage crises.
It’s a mindset that departs from a command and control leadership style to one more focused on empowering team members to enable them to achieve the vision.
How to be a servant leader
To practice servant leadership, a leader must:
- Understand the emotional obstacles to servant leadership: These include fear, pride, arrogance, and self-worth.
- Build self-awareness and emotional intelligence: Can be achieved through self-assessment tools as well as coaching.
- Build the right habits: This includes adopting a coaching mindset, listening first and talking second, being healthy, and keeping integrity.
- Be curious about others and how you can them help them.
5. Be authentic
“True leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed… leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.” - Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Facebook
There’s a notion that leaders are supposed to always present as a list of carefully defined qualities (strategic, analytical, performance-oriented) and mask their true selves.
But leaders are humans too and it’s much easier to make connections if they demonstrate that by showing vulnerability and acknowledging that they don’t always have the right answers.
How leaders can be authentic
Leaders can remain authentic by:
- Showing vulnerability. No-one has all the right answers all the time
- Communicating their purpose and vision.
- Remaining faithful to their values and unique personality.
6. Be curious
There’s a great quote from former Royal Marine commander, James Knight, that goes “Be interested, not interesting.”
Tying in with what was mentioned earlier under servant leadership, the best leaders don’t make it all about them. Instead, they’re intensely curious about those around them and remain open to new ideas and ways of thinking.
How leaders can be curious
Nay is starting a new job as the manager of an established team. When she takes over she:
- Books in a 1:1 meeting with each team member to get to know them personally and ask about their roles, experiences, aspirations, and challenges.
- Establishes regular 1:1 meetings with the team and individual members, creating ongoing opportunities to learn more about their evolving needs and concerns.
- Reviews past projects and achievements of the team and asks team members about what worked well and what challenges they faced.
7. Accept failure
“The experience of defeat, or more particularly the manner in which a leader reacts to it, is an essential part of what makes a winner.” - Sir Alex Ferguson, Football Manager.
Everyone makes mistakes and not every project or idea will be successful. Leaders must be humble enough to acknowledge this and, in doing so, create a more psychologically safe environment where failure is treated as a learning opportunity.
This helps foster a culture of learning, encourages open communication, demonstrates accountability, and humanizes the workplace.
Example of how a leader can accept failure
Lisa is head of product at a tech company that’s recently launched a new product into the market. Despite extensive research and development, the product doesn’t take off and sales are disappointing.
To accept and overcome this failure, she:
- Acknowledges the failure in a company-wide meeting, setting a tone of transparency and honesty.
- Analyzes what went wrong in a series of debriefing sessions. They look into every aspect of the product's development, marketing, and customer feedback to gain a comprehensive understanding of the failure.
- Supports the team by offering support and reassurance and emphasizing the value of learning from mistakes and encourages the team to view this experience as a growth opportunity.
8. Cultivate diversity, equity, and inclusion
A commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion starts from the top. It’s down to leaders first to cultivate diverse perspectives and create a work environment where everyone feels comfortable and that they belong.
How leaders can cultivate diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Learn about DEI and what it entails, potentially with the help of DEI books.
- Conducting a DEI audit to assess the current state of diversity, equity, and inclusion in her company. This involves examining recruitment practices, workforce demographics, pay equity, and the inclusivity of the company culture.
- Setting clear, measurable DEI goals e.g. increasing the representation of underrepresented groups in the workforce by a certain percentage within a specified timeframe.
9. Be Decisive
Decisive leadership provides clear direction and guidance to teams. When a leader makes clear decisions, it helps eliminate confusion and uncertainty, enabling team members to understand their roles and responsibilities better and focus on execution.
How to be more decisive as a leader
Zoe, the CEO of a retail company, notices a significant shift in consumer behavior towards online shopping. The company has traditionally focused on brick-and-mortar stores, but the market trend clearly indicates a need to enhance their online presence.
Actions Zoe makes:
- Quickly gathers data on current market trends, consumer preferences, and the company’s online and offline sales figures.
- Calls a meeting with her leadership team to discuss the data and gather their insights, ensuring she has a well-rounded view of the situation.
- Based on the data and discussions, Zoe decides to allocate more resources to developing the company's e-commerce platform. She sets clear goals for the shift, such as doubling online sales in the next year.
- Communicates her decision and the reasoning behind it to her entire company. She explains the market trends and the need for this strategic shift, ensuring everyone understands the new direction.
This is one of Amazon’s leadership principles we agree with. They call it ‘bias for action’ based on the principle that most business decisions are reversible to calculated risks are acceptable.
10. Set Clear Expectations
Setting clear expectations ensures team members know what is required of them. This clarity helps eliminate confusion, ensuring everyone knows their roles, responsibilities, and objectives.
This establishes a basis for accountability. Team members know what they are accountable for, and leaders have a clear standard against which to measure performance.
How leaders can set clear expectations
Rita, the Sales Director of a software company, is introducing a new sales strategy focused on expanding into new market segments. To ensure the success of this strategy, Rita knows she must set clear expectations with her team.
How Rita sets clear expectations:
- Detailed strategy presentation: She begins by presenting the new sales strategy in a detailed meeting with her entire sales team. She explains the objectives, the target new markets, and the rationale behind the strategy.
- Define specific goals: she provides specific, measurable goals for each salesperson and team. For example, she sets clear targets for the number of new client acquisitions and revenue growth expected from the new market segments.
- Role-specific expectations: She outlines the specific expectations for each role in the sales team, clarifying how each team member can contribute to the strategy’s success.
- Timeline and milestones: She sets a clear timeline for the strategy implementation, including key milestones. She outlines when she expects to see certain results and stages of progress.
11. Be Data-Driven
As statistician and management theorist, William Deming, once said “In God we trust, all others bring data.”
Data provides a factual basis for decision-making, reducing reliance on intuition or assumptions. Data-driven leaders who dive deep into the metrics make more informed choices that are more likely to yield positive outcomes.
With the advent of people analytics, leaders have never had such rich data sources to work with.
How leaders can be more data-driven
Sandra is the HR Director of a mid-sized technology company. She's concerned about recent trends in employee turnover and wants to improve engagement and retention. She decides to leverage people analytics to address these issues.
- Gathering data: Sandra begins by collecting comprehensive data. This includes employee turnover rates, engagement survey results, performance reviews, attendance records, and exit interview data.
- Analyzing employee turnover: She uses HR analytics tools to examine patterns in turnover.
- Improving retention strategies: She analyzes data to identify the most effective mechanisms for employee retention.
Seems basic but this is a trap a lot of startup founders in particular fall into. Trying to do everything isn’t sustainable in the long run, so relinquishing control and effective delegation are key to successful leadership.
This ties in with another of Amazon’s leadership principles ‘hire and develop the best’. Leaders play to their strengths and take care to hire and develop exceptional talent they can delegate to.
Example of a leader delegating effectively
Jordan is the founder of a rapidly growing tech startup specializing in AI-driven software solutions. As the startup scales, Jordan finds the workload increasing exponentially. Realizing the importance of delegation for both the company's growth and personal effectiveness, he adopts a strategic approach to delegate responsibilities.
- Identify tasks that would benefit from being delegated e.g. marketing
- Assess the skills already present in the organization and if there are any gaps
- Clearly define roles and expectations and what success looks like
Get more leadership advice over in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders sharing knowledge and best practices to help you progress in your career and make greater impact in your org.