Leadership principles: Examples, methods and implementation tips

What are leadership principles?

Good leadership motivates employees to surpass themselves. It therefore plays a central role in the success of an organisation. Leadership is particularly effective when it emerges from the core values and strategy of an organisation. Leadership principles help with communication: they provide guidance on how leadership should be understood and practised in an organisation. Leadership principles are not set in stone. Rather, they should be put to the test again and again and adapted to changing circumstances. Ideally, leadership principles are therefore a dynamic model that develops together with the organisation.

Why are leadership principles useful?

Managers, employees and the entire company benefit from good leadership principles. As long as the foundations of the understanding of leadership remain implicit, there is a great risk that leadership will be practised inconsistently and will not realise its potential. With the help of leadership principles, companies can formulate a uniform direction for leadership and thus ensure that everyone in the company pulls in the same direction.

In everyday life, transparent leadership guidelines help managers to make consistent and powerful decisions that are in line with the overarching organisational goals. The demands of day-to-day business are growing with increasing complexity and are also changing ever faster. This makes clear guidelines all the more important. Leadership principles also facilitate cooperation within the organisation. This is particularly true for cross-functional exchanges in matrix organisations.

Employees also benefit from clear leadership principles. This is because leadership principles ensure that the behaviour and priorities of superiors are more comprehensible and predictable. This in turn promotes trust, a positive working atmosphere and motivation.

What are the arguments in favour of developing leadership principles?

There is often a trigger that triggers a preoccupation with leadership principles. This is often driven by the business. After all, leadership is closely linked to corporate success. Triggers can be:

  • Ambitious growth plans that are to be realised through a distribution of leadership responsibilities
  • A merger or takeover, after which a common understanding of leadership needs to be re-established
  • Changes in the business, such as entry into a new market, which require existing leadership principles to be reviewed and sharpened
  • A new top team developing a common understanding of leadership for greater unity as a clear guideline and message to the organisation
  • Insufficient leadership performance or a lack of leadership competence that needs to be counteracted
  • The desire for a systematic evaluation for filling key strategic positions, identifying talent and targeted leadership development
  • A cultural transformation that is to be driven by new leadership principles

How should leadership principles be formulated?

In recent decades, there has been a comprehensive change in the understanding of leadership: away from hierarchy and control of employees towards more empowerment and creative freedom. This trend is also reflected in leadership principles.

In addition to such overarching developments, managers should also consider the corporate culture and the challenges in the business: What kind of leadership is needed today and in the future for the company to realise its strategy and live up to its vision? As the answer to this question may change over time, the leadership principles should also be constantly compared with the reality of the company and revised if necessary.

Before those responsible define specific leadership principles, it is helpful to agree on design principles. They define the framework and facilitate the formulation of leadership principles. The key points for design principles include

  • Scope: holistic vs. essential
  • Target group: only for the leadership team vs. for the entire organisation
  • Structure: competences vs. principles
  • Number: long & comprehensive vs. short & concise
  • Language: substantive & passive vs. verbalised & active
  • Emotionality: neutral vs. emotional
  • Degree of operationalisation: "good and bad" leadership behaviour vs. behavioural anchors

Which design principles are the right ones depends on the corporate culture and the use case. The best known are the Amazon Leadership Principles. They are holistic and encompass the entire organisation. In contrast, other companies focus primarily on managers. The scope and structure vary accordingly.

Although leadership principles should be aligned with the respective organisational goals and culture, there are some overarching recommendations. For example, leadership principles should appeal to managers and employees both rationally and emotionally. The principles are then convincing in terms of content and at the same time have an activating and inspiring effect. Leadership principles should also be memorable and inspiring. This makes it easier for managers and employees to internalise and live by them. It is also helpful to illustrate leadership principles with examples. In this way, leadership principles also act as behavioural anchors.

How are leadership principles developed?

The following applies to the development of leadership principles: the journey is the destination, at least to some extent. After all, intensive engagement and exchange within the organisation about leadership are extremely fruitful in themselves. It therefore makes sense not to outsource this process, but to live and shape it together. Ideally, people from different levels and areas should be involved in a targeted manner. This also ensures that managers can identify with the leadership principles.

The typical procedure comprises four steps:

  1. Diagnosis & target image: At the beginning of the development process, those involved agree on the aspirations and target image of the new leadership principles: What is to be achieved with them? This is followed by an analysis of the existing management structure and the corresponding culture. Important tools here are interviews with the top team and surveys of employees on the topic of leadership. This forms the basis for a comparison of the ACTUAL and TARGET leadership situation, followed by a synthesis.
  2. Development & sharpening: In the second step, those responsible iteratively develop a final leadership model. Interactive workshops and an in-depth exchange on the content, form and visualisation of leadership principles help to develop this.
  3. Operationalisation & communication: Once the leadership principles are in place, those responsible must decide how they want to anchor them in the organisation. They develop an action plan as well as concepts for initiatives and measures for implementation. Well thought-out communication and change measures help to communicate the leadership principles transparently and comprehensibly within the organisation.
  4. Implementation & stabilisation: The end of the process is reached when the initiatives have been implemented and the new understanding of leadership has been anchored in the organisation. It is important for those responsible to create a framework that enables effective implementation.

How are leadership principles implemented?

As satisfying as it is when the final formulated leadership principles are in place, it is also dangerous to stop here (see step 4). Because the best leadership principles are of little help if they are not effective. The formulation of leadership principles is therefore only the first step. To ensure that the leadership principles do not disappear into a drawer, various points of contact should be integrated into everyday working life.

It is not enough to simply mention them; rather, it is important that managers actively engage with the principles and visibly practise good leadership. This requires the top team to focus on observable behaviours when defining behavioural anchors. There should also be visible consequences of both good and bad leadership. This ensures the effectiveness and credibility of the new understanding of leadership.

The three undconsorten tips on leadership principles

  1. Leadership principles should fit the organisation - it is therefore important to think about the individual goals that are being pursued with them in advance.
  2. The discussion about leadership is a core part of the work and an asset in itself - it should therefore not be outsourced or even omitted.
  3. Leadership principles are not an end in themselves, but only the first step on a journey - measures to implement the leadership principles should therefore be considered from the outset.

If we can support you in the development of leadership principles, please contact us.

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Clara Drewes
Clara Drewes
Project Manager


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