What Is Principled Leadership?

Updated: Apr 5

Raise your hand if you have read Fierce Conversations.


In the world of education, Fierce Conversations has been the book when it comes handling difficult conversations with staff members. In her groundbreaking 2002 book, Susan Scott outlines seven steps for effectively leading coaching, evaluative, and disciplinary conversations with staff members.


Not only have I read this book, I also attended a three-day training on topic. The tools provided in Fierce Conversations have been remarkable, helping thousands of leaders navigate these often delicate discussions in their own organizations.


While others swear by the practices outlined in this book, I have admittedly struggled to find practical application of the seven steps. Several times I have scripted my conversations as the book suggested, only to abandon the process and go off script as I got deeper into the process.


At first, I took things personally and wondered whether not I had what it took to effectively lead difficult conversations. However, beyond Fierce Conversations I was noticing a pattern - I was struggling to find any practical application for the step by step processes I was learning in books or was taught at conferences.


As I continue to refine my leadership philosophy, I have determined that memorizing steps and following "how to" procedures does not come naturally. Rather, I have discovered I prefer to fall back upon guiding principles and core values to solve problems and make decisions.

One of the books that speaks to this type of leadership is the aptly-named Principles by Ray Dalio. In his book, Dalio shares his collection of fundamental truths that serve as his foundation for decision making. He suggests once leaders establish their guiding principles, those foundational truths can be applied again and again in similar situations to help a leader make effective decisions.


During my continued push for personal growth, I have found myself gravitating toward a principled approach to leadership. Having deeply embedded principles allows me to naturally approach each situation rather than recalling a fixed formula or rigid blueprint.


An analogy to this type of thinking could be found with mathematics. While it might be nice to know the step by step process for approaching a long division problem, most would agree is better to understand the underlying principles for solving the problem. When principles of division are internalized, the student is able to apply those laws to different problems in a variety of settings.

Let me be clear - I am not suggesting there is only one way to approach leadership. Some may feel comfortable using a set of defined steps to approach each situation. Ultimately, what's most important isn't the path one takes to reach a goal, but rather that the goal is met.


However, if you are like me and find difficulty finding practical application of the "seven procedures for effective hiring" or "six steps to employee happiness," I encourage you to forget memorizing prescribed actions and instead develop your guiding leadership principles.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Jared Smith LLC.  Specializing in Leadership, Education, and Personal Growth.