Principle-Based Leadership


Dr. Gerhard van Rensburg | Director | Future Leaders Africa | | |

Principle-based leadership simplifies and grounds the multifaceted concept of leadership in the range of principles that guides leaders’ thinking, behaviours and approaches to the task of leading.

Leaders grow their effectiveness and influence by internalising key principles.

To internalise is to make something, such as an idea or an attitude an important part of the kind of person you are and the way you live. Such leaders lead with conviction, yet remain open to new learning and feedback. Principle-based, inside-out (knowing self-first; being self-aware and authentic) leadership engages the leader’s belief and value system as opposed to merely relying on theory, models and tactical approaches. The leader becomes influential and effective based on the kind of person he is. What he does and how he does it is an extension of his being principled and value-driven.

Principle-based leadership is about authentic influence.

The ‘why’ before the ‘what’ and ‘how’

Principle-based leadership prioritises the ‘why’ over the ‘what’ and ‘how’.

When leadership competencies, skills, actions and behaviours are rooted in principles that are informed by our beliefs and values, they become more influential, effective and consistent.

To grow as a leader encompasses what we think, what we believe, what we value, our attitudes and our behaviour. Sustainable growth or development follows when we are involved in something constructive that touches us holistically – mind, heart, body and soul. Personal growth and leadership development are inter-linked and a lifelong process. Self-awareness, authenticity and personal responsibility are fundamental and include both a person’s strengths and weaknesses.

When we consider our personal aspirations and what it will take to get us there, it has to be aligned with what we know about ourselves – our deeper beliefs and values, our fears, our passions, our assumptions, strengths and weaknesses – or else it will disappoint us, sooner or later. When we consider improvements or changes needed at work and what it will take to get us there, it has to be aligned with what we value in a work organisation and change in general, or else our efforts will be superficial and short-lived.

When we consider how to work with others and what is needed for collaboration and results, it has to be grounded in the principles we believe in and guide us in our interactions with others, or else our credibility and influence is compromised.

Integrity, excellence and respect for others, fuels principle-based leadership in all the areas of leading self, change and others.

Vertical development

Principle-based and inside out leadership is intertwined with vertical development (developing a next level mind-set and orientation) which is required in the 21st century world where we encounter adaptive challenges much more so than technical challenges.

By returning to the principle over and again we challenge ourselves to remain open to transformed thinking and behaviour and we avoid becoming mechanical, following formulas and recipes whilst remaining stuck in a certain frame of mind. In horizontal development we add new skills and knowledge but use it with an unchanged mind-set, which can limit our effectiveness.

Principle-based leadership and the modern-day context

The 21st century world is well described as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA).

Against this background numerous researchers have found that the most effective leaders are principle-based leaders. They lead with a clearly articulated set of principles and values. That holds true if ‘effectiveness’ is measured by overall company performance in a particular sector, or by employee engagement and satisfaction, key conditions for productivity. By remaining principled in their actions, principled leaders are seen as consistent over time regardless of environmental pressures and fluctuations.

10 Core beliefs underpinning the development of principle-based leaders:

  1. The foundation to leadership development is personal development
  2. Leadership encompasses all human dimensions: the mind, body, spirit and soul
  3. Sustainable leadership effectiveness is dependent on the degree to which the leader truly believes in, values and lives leadership principles
  4. Content-heavy training does not produce better leaders, personal journeys in conversation with self, a coach/mentor and peers do
  5. Positive inside-out change is always an option and possibility, no matter our circumstances or age
  6. The discovery of the limiting effect of our deep-seated commitment to self-protection, is key in changing our behaviour for more effectiveness
  7. Both science and age-old wisdom confirms and emphasises the willingness to remain open to new learning as pivotal in the pursuit of growth and excellence
  8. Competence without character and social intelligence is a high risk in leadership
  9. It is of key importance in leadership development that people feel responsible for their own progress
  10. 21st Century leadership is characterised by collective processes, not elitist individuals