A Leadership Philosophy

I think it is critically important for every good leader to have a core set of beliefs about how they go about being a leader – a leadership philosophy.  Having an explicit philosophy provides consistency and purpose to the direction one provides, and helps achieve one’s goals in a way that is understandable to those who benefit from the leadership being provided.  A leader who lacks a leadership philosophy is likely to be inconsistent and arbitrary.

Note that a leadership philosophy is not the same as leadership goals:  Goals generally describe a desired outcome, while a leadership philosophy defines “how” one goes about achieving whatever the current goals are.

Because I have been in management for many years, I have had a lot of opportunity to witness and learn from both good and bad forms of leadership, and had the opportunity to try out various methods and judge their value.

But while I now have a pretty good idea of what I think is right and what isn’t, I have never written my core beliefs down in a concise manner.

Recently I came across an old article entitled Doing a Job: The Management Philosophy of Adm. Hyman G. Rickover that amazed me because it is a pretty accurate statement of what I believe as a leader.

For those of you not familiar with him, Admiral Rickover was known as the “father of the US nuclear navy” and was the driving force behind the creation of the first nuclear submarine as well as the shaper of the subsequent US nuclear navy.

That this article should be such a good statement of leadership philosophy is a bit unexpected:  I would not normally think of anyone in government as a leadership paragon, developing and running nuclear submarines in the Navy is not a typical business undertaking, and something written way back in 1982 might well be considered obsolete today.

But even though it is 28 years later and we are not in the Navy designing and building nuclear submarines, virtually every point in Rickover’s article are relevant to us here today.  In fact, one could substitute a few words here and there and it would address software development exactly.

A few specific points are worth emphasizing:

  • “Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done.”  Which means that focusing on employee development and empowerment is one of the most important things a leader can do.
  • “Every manager has a personal responsibility not only to find problems but to correct them.”
  • “Unless the individual truly responsible can be identified when something goes wrong, no one has really been responsible. With the advent of modern management theories it is becoming common for organizations to deal with problems in a collective manner, by dividing programs into subprograms, with no one left responsible for the entire effort.”  (my favorite comment)
  • “A good manager must have unshakeable determination and tenacity. Deciding what needs to be done is easy, getting it done is more difficult. Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience. Once implemented they can be easily overturned or subverted through apathy or lack of follow-up, so a continuous effort is required. Too often, important problems are recognized but no one is willing to sustain the effort needed to solve them.”

And much more.  I don’t necessarily agree with the importance he assigns to written reports, but that might an artifact of this being from 1982 or from a military guy.  Or it might be a good idea that I just haven’t embraced yet.

I also liked the following quote – can you relate this to software development?

When I came to Washington before World War II to head the electrical section of the Bureau of Ships, I found that one man was in charge of design, another of production, a third handled maintenance, while a fourth dealt with fiscal matters. The entire bureau operated that way. It didn’t make sense to me. Design problems showed up in production, production errors showed up in maintenance, and financial matters reached into all areas. I changed the system. I made one man responsible for his entire area of equipment—for design, production, maintenance, and contracting. If anything went wrong, I knew exactly at whom to point. I run my present organization on the same principle.

I understand that Adm. Rickover was a very demanding and difficult person to work for, but he was also someone who expected and obtained an extremely high level of sustained organizational performance.  He did this by having – and consistently executing – a very clear leadership philosophy.

A great example for a leader at any level.  Anchors aweigh!

About John

John Peterson has been creating and managing the creation of software for his entire professional life. During that time, he's been through many projects large and small, worked with a wide variety of people on a wide variety of technologies, made a lot of mistakes, and learned a lot in the process. The intention of this blog is to pass along the wisdom he has accumulated in the creation of software to those who may be earlier in their path of experience.
This entry was posted in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply