Ron McLerren Ph.D. Still Point Consulting

Principle Based Leadership and Executive Coaching

Defining Principle Based Leadership

Principle based leadership is centered on creating a culture of commitment and collaboration.

Leadership principles form a foundation that people anchor themselves to with a passion to initiate action and drive an effort or organization toward a common vision. That common vision is something much larger then just one individual or goal. Employees know what they do, but what is more important is why they do it. What is the larger purpose and goals?

The initial Principle Based leadership model came out of the work done by Stephen Covey on Principles-Centered Leadership (Covey 1991).

Each organization defines the fundamental disciplines that allow them to work in a transparent and positive manner.

In general, most of the research shows that organizations that are successful in creating a “Principle Based Culture,” are organized around five key guiding leadership disciplines. These are culture, people, productivity, decision making and self improvement.



“Why” Success comes from focusing on something larger than just yourself, a sense of purpose. People do not follow or buy what people do; they follow or buy “Why” you do it.



Take care of your people. Support, communicate, and handle conflicts in a timely, direct and honest way. Train, coach, counsel, follow up, and empower your people!



Stay focused and on track, build your sphere of influence, follow current events.


Decision Making

Treat every interaction and decision as situational, make comprehensive based decisions, set examples and don’t become one.


Self Improvement

Develop yourself professionally, know your strengths, weaknesses and self-evaluate. Be willing to change, adapt to change, and remain flexible. Be passionate about everything!

Over time many individuals have expanded on the principles of this model. Some of them are as follows:

  • Servant Leadership (Greenleaf 2002)
  • Participative leadership ( Lewin)
  • Contingency leadership( Fiedler)
  • Stewardship Choosing Service over Self Interest ( Block)
  • Leading without power ( De Pree)
  • New vision new reality ( Klein)
  • The fifth Agreement ( Don Miguel Ruiz)

Each either introduced or built upon existing leadership theories, characteristic, traits, and practices.


Summary of Leadership Principles

 Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast!

People Do Not Buy What You Do, But “Why” You Do It! – Simon Sinek


Principle 1

  • Best Practices of 11%
  • Notice what is in the middle “ WHY”
  • Get on a Southwest flight to anywhere, buy shoes from, pants from Nordstrom, groceries from Whole Foods, anything from Costco, a Starbucks ï Espresso, or a Double-Double from In N’ Out, and you’ll get a taste of these brands’ vibrant cultures.
Misunderstood and mismanaged:

Culture, like brand, is misunderstood and often discounted, as a touchy-feely component of business that belongs to HR. It’s not intangible or fluffy, it’s not a vibe or the office decor. It’s one of the most important drivers that have to be set or adjusted to push long-term success. It is not good enough just to have good service. Long-term success is dependent on a culture that is nurtured and alive. Culture is the environment in which your strategy and your brand thrives or dies a slow death.


If there’s any doubt about the value of investing time in culture, there are significant benefits that come from a vibrant and alive culture:

  • Focus: Aligns the entire organization towards achieving its vision, mission, and goals.
  • Motivation:Builds higher employee motivation and loyalty.
  • Connection: Builds team cohesiveness among the company’s various departments and divisions.
  • Cohesion: Builds consistency and encourages coordination and control within the company.
  • Spirit: Shapes employee behavior at work, enabling the organization to be more efficient and alive.



Principle 2: People be honest and direct

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problem’s is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership”–Colin Powell

 A leader needs to be open and honest and direct with everyone. Talking around issues or lying will not facilitate trust. Leaders need to constantly communicate with everyone and be consistent in the message delivered. This includes both positive and negative messages and communication.

Principle 3: Speak out when you disagree or when you agree

“I said what I wanted to say. You heard what you wanted to hear”― Evette Carter

This principle applies to everyone and not just leaders. A leader should never dampen a person’s input whether positive or negative. Remember, your perception of negativity may be someone else’s passion. Don’t feel pressured to only agree or go with the flow. Always be professional, but say what is on your mind. Provide your opinion and ideas. If everyone always agrees or disagrees then there’s no need to even have the discussion. Some of the best ideas come from both sides of the conversation or argument

Principle 4: Take care of your people

“Powell’s Rules for Picking People: Look for intelligence and judgment, and most critically, a capacity to anticipate, and see around corners. Also look for loyalty, integrity, a high-energy drive, a balanced ego, and the drive to get things done” – Colin Powell

People are the most important asset but sometimes it appears we know little about them. For many leaders their interest is focused on “serving others first,” or in “serving rather than being served,” (Boone & Makhani, 2012). When they understand the vision, have clear objectives, and respect leadership, each other and the organization they will move mountains. Leaders should never demand respect it is something that must be earned and quite often position or title does not impress them.

Some good practices include listening, coach and don’t micro-manage, respect and challenge, praise good behavior and reward and admonish when necessary. Most importantly, a leader should ensure that compensation, rewards and recognition are equitable. If not, it will undermine or even destroy an organization’s productivity. Sometimes eye-to-eye contact and a sincere thank you is all that is necessary.

Principle 5: Show emotion and empathy :

“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you”–Susan Sarandon



Principle 6: Stay focused and on-track:

“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape”–Anonymous

Leaders must avoid being sidetracked by project hobbies and trivial activities. All too often leaders cannot produce a list of activities occurring within an organization and provide a solid reason for doing them. Stay focused on activities that drive success and the end objectives. Prioritize all projects and initiatives. The leader must maintain a strategy-focused organization (Kaplan & Norton, 2000) in order to move the organization closer to the vision.

Principle 7: Follow current events: 

“A well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and have vice. The vacant mind is ever on the watch for relief, and ready to plunge into error, to escape from the languor of idleness”–Ann Radcliffe

A leader needs to be well informed and abreast of current events. Collect and synthesize things that are important and pertinent or may impact the vision, objectives and strategies. Determine the potential impacts of national and global events. We do not live or do business in a vacuum. We now live in a globalized environment thanks to technology.

One method a leader can employ to follow current events and activities is to engage the customer and employees in your business and products. Involvement can be internal (employees suggestions) and externally (customer sessions) (Wilson-Burns, Smith, & Ulrich, 2012) explained the need for leaders to connect with the customer to retain currency of the business “A strong leadership brand is where you make the firm brand and the employee brand real by identifying for leaders in your company what it is that customers and employees expect and the organization wants you to deliver.” Being current with products and services is how a business retains its viability and sustains its business.

 Principle 8: Build your network and sphere of influence

 “Technology does not run an enterprise, relationships do”-–Patricia Fripp

Not everyone will like you and some will never like you. Try not to burn bridges and be sure to patch ones that have been hurt. Get ideas and opinions from everyone, you never know what you might learn. Don’t just select colleagues and friends that agree with you. Leaders should consider networking with a broad breadth of people and experiences, ideas, and values.

Some of the people in a leader’s network will be followers, some will be senior executives, and yet another group can be external to the organization. Building a successful network of contacts takes time and can be a trial based process and selection. One group especially important to a leader is contacts or followers within their organization or industry. The leader’s relationship with their follower’s is a relationship that must be nurtured and managed to be effective and successful (Whiteley & Johnson, 2012).


Principle 9: Treat every interaction and decision as situational

“Failures of perspective in decision-making can be due to aspects have the social utility paradox, but more often result from simplemistakes caused by inadequate thought”–Herman Kahn

When making decisions a leader quickly learns that one size does not fit all. Each decision is as often as unique as the number of people on the planet. There is no one best leadership style as suggested by leadership theory (Hersey & Blanchard, 1977). The leader must treat each decision as situational and more than likely it will require a different approach be used for each decision. Along with each approach the leader needs to apply a sound and consistent decision-making process for each situation.

Principle 10: Make comprehensive based decisions

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes”–Peter Drucker

Focusing on bits of information and not the entire scope and impact of the decision often leads to bad decisions. A leader must be rational and consistent, collect the best information available, and consider all major factors of a decision.

Indecision and putting off critical decisions that need to be made is a bad habit to acquire. Many decisions require a timely and proactive response. Not all decisions will be received positively however, the more informed a decision is the easier it will be to get people behind it and support the decision.

For a leader making a decision is a process, which includes impact, effect, resources, and should take into account the ethical aspects of the decision. The area that leaders have concerns is how to weigh the ethical and legal aspects of a decision. The decision process sounds simple and pretty straightforward how the leader explains the ethical based leadership is a matter of narration, examination, and analysis (Konig & Waistell, 2012).

Principle 11: Set the example and don’t become one

“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy”—Norman Schwarzkopf

People rely on leaders to set an example and not become one. They will often mimic your actions and behavior. Leaders that operate without integrity and ethics will set the tone for the organization. A leader must act with integrity and show ethical behavior in almost everything they do, say and decision they make.

Rolling up your sleeves and be ready to help if needed is a mark of leader that believes in what they do and are not afraid to pitch in to contribute to the success of the entire organization. Do as I say and not as I do is not an effective strategy.


Principle 12: Develop yourself professionally

“Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire”–W B Yeats

It is critical that a leader advances his or her education. Reflect and set goals, keep up with the latest trends, and map out a professional development plan. There is not much less than a leader who does not have a good grasp of the subject or is extremely shallow and superficial.

A leader should strive to achieve Personal Mastery (Senge, 1990). Personal Mastery is not a one-time event but a lifelong and continuous journey. Leaders must develop a vision and drive themselves toward that future state. A leader that is content with today and the competencies and skills they currently possess will be left with only his or her reality of today.

Principle 13: Know your strengths, weaknesses, and self-evaluate

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something”–Steve Jobs

Sense shines with a double luster when it is set in humility. An able yet humble man is a jewel worth a kingdom. -William Penn

Know yourself and your limitations and don’t be afraid to honestly evaluate yourself. Seek input from others, they may view you differently. Set improvement goals and strengthen your weaknesses. When you look in the mirror you may be happy with what you see but others may view you in a different manner.

To be an effective leader requires an ability to self-evaluate your personal skills and abilities and to be humble and honest about what they know and do not know. There has been more intensity placed on the leader and their humility given corporate scandals, generous bonuses, ego issues, and running the corporation as a fiefdom (Owens & Hekman, 2012). A leader is someone that can live and work within his or her skills and abilities and then to be able to identify the need for help from others. 

Final Thoughts

Thirteen key principles of leadership have been presented. If it seems overwhelming, it is. Leaders are women or men that have aspired to be the focal point for the decision-making process, some leaders are born most leaders are developed through a process of “leadership development” that can take many forms and formats (Schyns, Kiefer, Kerschreiter, & Tymon, 2011).

Leadership is not an easy task and it often requires a high-level of stamina, flexibility, and consistency. More importantly it requires a set of key principles that serve as a foundation. A title does not make you a leader but rather your actions and passion towards achieving a vision.


Research material updated: Ph.D. Thesis 2007 by

Philip Burian, Colorado Technical University

Pamela. S. Burian, Colorado Technical University

Francis R. “ Skip” Maffei III, North central University

Mark A. Pieffer, Jones International University