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Follow Me: A Leadership Philosophy Framework for Leaders in Higher Education

Leadership and Management

Follow Me: A Leadership Philosophy Framework for Leaders in Higher Education

This article first appeared in The Best of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference 2017 (Magna Publications, 2018).

In higher education, the expectation that faculty maintain a teaching philosophy is customary. As faculty transition into academic leadership roles, sometimes unexpectedly, the same narrative description is needed to describe an individual’s leadership methods (Beatty, Leigh, and Dean 2009). When leaders have clarity about who they are, how they lead, and what followers can expect, their actions become transparent and more consistent. Taking the time to create a personal leadership philosophy (PLP) enables leaders to be more intentional in their leadership. A PLP is a reflective explanation of a leader’s core values, attitudes, and real-life experiences that guide their leadership behaviors.

The leadership style each leader in higher education uses is unique. There are three commonly observed leadership styles: authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire. An authoritarian leader has a strong preference for structure and ground rules and supervises followers. A democratic leader seldom gives orders and prefers to help followers figure out how to complete work tasks. A laissez-faire leader allows followers to accomplish tasks in their own way with complete freedom. Leaders tend to embody aspects of multiple styles depending on the situation. A democratic leader, for example, may have to behave in an authoritarian way when making a difficult decision. Thus, while an inventory might indicate a leader has a commonly observed style, it is not static or unchanging (Northouse 2015).

Whether leaders recognize it, they are constantly evaluating their environment and people and their ideas as good or bad and decisions as ethical or unethical. Core values are an individual’s guiding principles. They keep an individual grounded and centered. Core values might include honesty, dedication, trust, or humility. When leaders are aware of their core values, they can use them to guide the decision-making process by determining whether the choice aligns with their core values. Core values live at the center of who a leader aspires to be and provide a grounding point for where leadership decisions are made (Kouzes and Posner 2016).

Attitudes are the way a leader views the world, that is, how an individual perceives, thinks, and feels about his or her workplace, profession, and future. A leader’s attitude can be judged by observing actions, words, or reactions to everyday situations. Leaders exhibit attitudes purposely as well as accidentally. When a leader demonstrates an optimistic attitude, followers exhibit confidence. When a leader demonstrates a negative attitude, followers might exhibit defeat. Both intended and unintended consequences of attitudes can change the tone, demeanor, and output of the workplace (Daft 2015).

Real-life experiences are events that define your professional history. That is, almost no one begins his or her career as an academic leader. Most academic leaders have spent time in the classroom or lab or have served in a variety of academic roles before assuming leadership positions. In addition, most experienced leaders have a work history that creates a story about them as workers. A college president who began her working years as a waitress in high school, sold flowers as a college student, and worked odd jobs while earning her PhD brings with her a personal work history of service, responsibility, and growth. These experiences, often tied to our tapestry of professional work history, are what mold us into who we are today and should be readily attributed to how a leader learned while working in a variety of employment settings.

In practice, a PLP should begin with a brief introduction that provides details about leadership style. Second, the leader’s core values should be shared describing how they influence his or her professional behavior. Third, the PLP should address how the individual’s attitude or mindset impacts his or her leadership behavior. Last, a leader should share how real-life experiences shaped his or her personal work history.

A PLP should be reviewed often and shared with others. It is important that a leader not hide the content of a PLP, as the intent is to help others understand and appreciate the leader’s history and leadership principles. Publishing a PLP can occur informally, such as sharing within a leadership team, or formally, such as posting on a LinkedIn profile or at the top of a resume. In addition, the accountability found when sharing the PLP helps the leader maintain a realistic approach to how he or she behaves and responds while leading in action.

The benefits of establishing a PLP are that it provides insight for both the leader and the followers. A PLP demonstrates reflective practices and self-awareness (Kouzes and Posner 2016). It can provide a framework to help leaders remain consistent in their leadership behaviors. Last, it can establish a standard that leaders can turn to when they are faced with a challenging situation.


Beatty, Joy E., Jennifer S. Leigh, and Kathy Lund Dean. 2009. “Philosophy Rediscovered: Exploring the Connections between Teaching Philosophies, Educational Philosophies, and Philosophy.” Journal of Management Education 33, no. 1: 99–114.

Daft, Richard L. 2015. The Leadership Experience. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Kouzes, James M., and Barry Z. Posner. 2016. Learning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader. San Francisco: Wiley.

Northouse, Peter G. 2015. Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gretchen Oltman, JD, PhD, is an associate professor of organizational leadership at Creighton University. She is also an attorney and author with over 25 years working in the field of education. Her work focuses on the practical application of scholarship to real-life settings.

Vicki Bautista, EdD, is an assistant professor at Creighton University in the Department of Family and Community Medicine in the School of Medicine. She serves as the assistant program director for the online master’s in integrative health and wellness. Additionally, she is a board-certified health and wellness coach. Prior to working at Creighton, she was employed in a variety of health promotion settings, including non-profit, medical, government, and research.


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