How to Apply Leadership Skills in the Workplace
Before we can tackle the question of how to apply leadership skills in the workplace, there are five clarifying questions to answer first:
- What’s the difference between leading and managing?
- Is leadership a matter of skill or something that comes naturally?
- Do people respond to a leader’s intentions or actions?
- What do followers look for in leaders?
- Is leadership reserved for a chosen few or is it for everyone?
These fundamentals define leadership and, in turn, reveal how to apply leadership skills in the workplace (and every place!).
The Difference between Leading and Managing
Although we use these terms interchangeably, there are important and significant differences in leading vs. managing. Both matter, but they’re not the same.
To manage means “to handle.” Managers get things done through other people. They are responsible for delivering on short-term outcomes.
To lead means “to guide.” Leaders help people to find their way toward new possibilities. They are responsible for clearing the path and showing the direction there. They focus on the long term.
Ideally, managers would also be leaders. They would dually focus on the short-term tasks at hand AND on the long-term vision for the future.
Isn’t Leadership Something that Just Comes Naturally (at least for some)?
There is a pervasive myth that leaders are people with natural-born charisma and charm. For many, the notion of leading is contingent on these characteristics.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone leads at some time or another. You have, perhaps without even knowing it, been a leader. People have followed your lead. They’ve emulated you or allowed you to guide them to something new.
Being a leader does not require any special inborn characteristics. There is no such things as “a natural born leader.” There is no one who cannot lead.
There may be some traits or inclinations that come easier for some than for others. But what makes someone a leader always boils down to a behavioral choice. What you do is what causes others to willingly choose to follow you (or not).
What Matters More? Intentions and Actions?
What you DO is what others respond to. Actions speak louder than words. And intentions… well, you won’t get much traction or credit from those since they are internal and invisible.
Your intentions are only as good as your expression of them. Your actions are the outward expression of what you believe, value, and intend. If you feel misunderstood or find yourself regrouping to try and convey what you intended, you need to take a closer look at your own actions. That’s all people can see, and it’s primarily what they will react to, emulate, and evaluate you by.
What Do Followers Look for in Leaders?
Here again, it’s all about your actions or behaviors. We may initially gravitate to people who have larger-than-life personalities or loads of charisma. But if their actions cause us to doubt them, we will not follow them.
When determining who to follow, we consider:
- What the person actually does or has done in the past, not what they say they will do.
- Whether or not we can trust this person.
- If the place this person promises to take us is a place we want to go.
- Whether or not it seems this person understands us and will help us achieve our own goals.
- If this person seems capable of effectively taking us to the new/different place we want to go.
Is Leadership for a Chosen Few? Or Is It for Everyone?
If you’ve heard and used the word “leadership” to describe the senior managers or executives in your organization, you might mistakenly believe that leadership is limited to those at the top of some org chart.
The healthiest organizations encourage leadership at every level. They know that “leadership is everybody’s business” and that liberating the leader in everyone promotes innovation, engagement, and mobilization toward shared goals.
These five fundamental questions reframe leadership. They highlight how soft skills, interpersonal connections, and deliberate choices are the key to applying your leadership. With this background, there are some critical next steps to take so you can be effective and confident as a leader. Think of these as a way to orient yourself as a leader. You’ll be finding “true north” and setting your internal compass when you align your values with your actions and craft your personal leadership philosophy.
Aligning Your Values and Your Actions
Values are the root of our intentions. Usually, we intend to do what we believe is right.
The problem is that our actions are all too often driven by something other than our own values. We react to situational stressors, peer pressure, time constraints, others’ dominance, or other external variables. Sometimes, we go along with the crowd even though something feels “off.”
When this happens, we may be compromising our values. Our actions are not aligned with what truly matters most to us.
Here’s a classic example. Annette values her family and cherishes her role as a mom. She values time with her children, and she wants them to know that she will always be there for them. Her intentions are to let them know how important they are to her and how much she loves them.
At the end of a long, hard workday, Annette is tired. She collapses on the couch after putting in 10 hours at the office and commuting 40 minute each way. It took everything she had to go through drive-through and put fast food kids’ meals on the table.
Night after night, Annette is exhausted. She’s been working on a special project for three months, and there’s no end in sight. Bedtime stories are a thing of the past. Evening visits to the park are merely empty promises. Short-tempered and frazzled, Annette can barely muster the patience to referee her children’s spats and to help them with their homework.
Annette has lost her way. The values she professes are not showing up in her actions. Her intentions are not showing up in the choices she makes. Without the consistent actions, her children don’t understand her intentions. When she says they are her top priority and that she’ll always be there for them, it doesn’t quite make sense.
Annette probably feels like she’s doing her best. She’s reacting the situation at work and allowing that to overshadow her values.
To align her actions with her values, Annette may have to make some tough choices. Leaders do that. They determine what is most important, and they dedicate their time, energy and effort to those priorities. Their internal compass -- their values -- helps them make choices that keep them on course.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that a professed value is not a genuine one. Maybe Annette’s actual values are related to achievement or financial rewards. There is no judgment implied here. Not everyone has a primary value related to family. Annette should get honest with herself and reconcile what her real values are so what she says and what she does are consistent.
To be seen as a credible leader, you may also have some work to do in sorting out your values and making sure your actions are aligned. Be honest with yourself. Don’t let others’ values influence what you claim as your own. Don’t choose values that you admire or aspire to. Pick the ones that matter most to you in all aspects of your life. Then do the work of figuring out what these values look like in action. Hold yourself accountable to this alignment.
Once you’ve worked out our values, you can take the next step of crafting a personal leadership philosophy. This is, in essence, your own blueprint for how to apply leadership in the workplace (and every place!). It will be about YOU and your leadership.
5 Steps to Craft Your Own Personal Leadership Philosophy
“Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare the truth thou hast, that all may share. Be bold. Proclaim it everywhere. They only live who dare.”
To be effective and inspiring as a leader, you must do what Voltaire describes in this quatrain. Developing a Personal Leadership Philosophy (PLP) will empower you to declare YOUR truth and stand tall within it, to operate from a position of strength that ennobles you.
It is a common practice in all branches of the U.S. armed services for top-ranking officials to develop and declare their philosophy of leadership. The leadership program at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania includes an advanced course called “The Philosophy of Leadership.” A prerequisite to that class is called “The Philosophy of Command.” In other words, what seems like a long article here is just the starting point – you could take intensive classes about this very subject.
Before sharing and modeling your own PLP, you’ll first need to do some of the work done in those classes to consider and craft a meaningful and genuine philosophy. This article will walk you through the steps needed. For more support, you can also use the samples and info on this resource page.
First, a definition of this thing called leadership philosophy. Philosophy is defined as:
- Your personal foundation or belief in human nature.
- A particular system of thought.
- A system of principles for guidance.
- An activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other.
- Love of wisdom
From these definitions, you can extract some important ideas about the PLP you’ll construct:
- Philosophy is personal. There is no right or wrong.
- Philosophy is something you choose. You can make a choice that is deliberate, intentional, based on reflection and determinations. Or, if you don’t do that, you can have an accidental philosophy… one that is vague and unclear to others and, quite possibly, vague and unclear to even you.
- Philosophy is meant as a foundation. Getting a solid core means you have clarity to guide decisions and a focus for sorting out all the competing inputs you get in a given day.
Here’s one description of what it means to have a PLP. Please note the bolded verbs – these will be the five action steps in building your PLP.
“Successful Leaders know their Personal Leadership Philosophy (PLP) and communicate it by living it passionately every day in all they say and do. They have taken the time to determine who they are, their values and priorities. They know their course and have set their internal compass, which gives them greater self-knowledge, greater self-confidence, and improved effectiveness as a leader. This is accomplished by writing a Personal Leadership Philosophy, which states the core values you live by, what you expect of your people, what they can expect of you, and how you will evaluate performance. ”
- Ed Ruggerio, “The Leader's Compass: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Key to Success”
The action words in bold type are the steps to follow in crafting your philosophy and effectively communicating it to others.
STEP 1: They have taken the time to determine who they are, their values and priorities…
Don’t jump ahead. Until you work through these questions and have absolute resolve about your own values and priorities, you cannot develop a meaningful PLP. This is the most important step in our process. Take your time in reflecting on these questions:
- What do you truly believe?
- Which values do you refuse to compromise?
- How comfortable are you with who you are?
- What causes you to have these core values?
- What is the single most important thing to you?
STEP 2: This is accomplished by writing a Personal Leadership Philosophy, which states the core values you live by, what you expect of your people, what they can expect of you, and how you will evaluate performance.
No short-cutting on this step either. These are the benefits of putting your PLP in writing:
- Putting it in writing provides clarity, objectivity.
- Putting it in writing implies you are serious.
- Putting it in writing makes a commitment.
- Putting it in writing keeps it consistent.
- Putting it in writing causes you to self-reflect, to be sure you mean what you say.
- Putting it in writing makes you accountable.
- Putting it in writing makes it easier to share.
These benefits are primarily for you. It’s you initially who needs clarity, commitment, consistency and accountability. Also, the process of putting something in writing forces us to take a step back and evaluate it more objectively. This leadership philosophy isn’t something you want to do with emotion alone – you want thought and analysis to go into it, too. Writing it down will help it to be more balanced.
STEP 3: Successful Leaders know their Personal Leadership Philosophy (PLP) and communicate it by living it passionately everyday in all they say and do. They have taken the time to determine who they are, their values and priorities. They know their course...
Isn’t this interesting? After all this reflection and writing, there is a wholly separate step related now to KNOWING your own personal leadership philosophy. Don’t gloss over this!
You have to know your own PLP so well that you live and breathe it. If it is to guide your actions and provide examples to others of who you are and what you stand for, then you need to be intimately familiar with your PLP. This can’t be an occasional thing that you bring out when it suits you… It needs to be a constant expression.
When you know your leadership philosophy, you also know your course of action. It’s this knowledge that guides your decisions and choices.
These are the outcomes of knowing, in your bones, what you believe in and what you stand for:
STEP 4: They have set their internal compass, which gives them greater self-knowledge, greater self-confidence, and improved effectiveness as a leader…
Once you determine, write down and get to know your own PLP, you can set yourself to live by it.
When you’ve done that, it’s just as powerful as it sounds – imagine that you are no longer going to get lost in the woods and that you will always be able to find and navigate by a bright north star. Think of the confidence you’ll project when you know exactly where you are going and no doubts about how you are going to get there. Others will notice, be inspired by this and be more willing and eager to follow you. And you will have fewer qualms about leading them.
What would it be like for you to have this level of clarity and confidence? You’ll have:
- Discernment (to uncover what you already know).
- Clarity that points toward your truth.
- Assurance that you won’t get lost at crossroads.
- An abiding ability to find your way.
- Persistent confidence.
- Inspiring effectiveness that others will want to follow.
- Clear direction.
STEP 5: They communicate it by living it passionately every day in all they say and do…
The first four steps helped you to craft your leadership philosophy. This step is equally important. But before you communicate your PLP, you must first take those set up steps so that you don’t begin communicating before you are clear and certain in what you stand for. Your PLP isn’t something that should change very often, so give it time to take shape and get it to a point where you can live with it for a good long time.
Our description is pretty clear in saying that the way you communicate your PLP is by living it passionately every day in all you say and do. That’s a very high standard. But that’s what it takes to be credible as a leader.
It all starts with getting clarity, first, for yourself so you can later communicate with clarity, conviction and credibility to others.
Learning How to Apply Leadership Skills in the Workplace Starts with Small Steps
It’s true. There’s a lot to think about when you unleash your leadership potential. It’s heady stuff! Here are five steps you can take immediately to get started.
- Use the tools we’ve prepared for you. On our leadership philosophy web page, you’ll find samples, step-by-step instructions, an infographic, and more to guide you through the process of crafting your own PLP. You can also access this free, on-demand webinar for more about PLPs.
- Learn more about what it means to lead and how you can embrace the opportunity of being an emerging leader even before you have a manager job title. Our email course is free and will help you work through the big questions like “what difference do you want to make?”
- Work on alignment of your values and actions. Audit yourself to see if your actions consistently express your values. If they don’t, spend a little time introspectively. Maybe those are aspirational or imposed values that aren’t as important to you as you originally thought. Or maybe you need to change your responses and habits to truly reflect your values.
- Get feedback from others about your leadership behaviors. Make sure that your intentions translate into actions. Consider a 360-degree assessment like The Leadership Practices Inventory® so you can better understand how you show up with others.
- Create your own leadership development plan. What do you need to learn, know or do differently to be more effective as a leader? What resources are required for you to get that knowledge or to make those changes? What’s your plan for accessing those resources and developing new habits? You’ve got to start somewhere, and your development plan will help you map it out.
As you’re getting started, there’s just one more thing to consider. We’ve been talking about your leadership in the workplace. But, in truth, your leadership can be practiced anywhere. As you craft your PLP and evaluate your values and actions, think of yourself in all situations and settings. Dr. Warren Bennis said “to know yourself as a leader is to know yourself.” Leadership is not isolated to the workplace. The leader you become is going to show up everywhere that you do.