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Setting Your North Star: How Guiding Principles Drive Business

November 07, 2023

As they say, it can be lonely at the top. Leadership isn’t always easy or obvious.

While the importance of consensus-building and the invaluable insights garnered from diverse perspectives both within and outside of your organization cannot be overstated, some decisions aren’t up for a democratic vote. Some decisions weigh heavier than others. Some look appealing from the vantage point of the “easy button,” which often is just a mirage. Some wouldn’t obtain the majority of the popular vote, although they are inherently right under particular facts and circumstances. And while it’s paramount to win the hearts and minds of the people you lead—and build a winning culture that they believe in—leadership is never about winning a popularity contest.

As a CEO, I often find myself considering and balancing the interests of many stakeholders, namely, employees, customers, shareholders and partners. Those interests aren’t always aligned. Over the years, I have developed and implemented various strategies and approaches to help lead my team toward peak performance. Among these, one strategy that has fostered internal strength and fortitude is developing and using a set of guiding principles.

My guiding principles have helped me successfully navigate headwinds and tailwinds, remain grounded and communicate who I am as a decision-maker to my team members. I strongly believe that guiding principles are a critical part of leadership and that every business leader should have and implement their own. Doing so will not only help you stand up for what you believe in but will also make it more likely that your team members will form their own set of guiding principles—which will strengthen your organization.

The Importance Of Guiding Principles

Guiding principles are a moral compass that leaders can turn to when making decisions, going through tough times and navigating the day-to-day running of their businesses, rather than simply going through the motions.

As Rick Hanson, who is a psychologist, author and senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, wrote in a Psychology Today article, it’s crucial to figure out which principles will guide you because when “you find your North Star, you know where you’re headed.” Two other essential benefits he noted? Your “North Star is (presumably) wholesome and vital, so aiming toward it will bring more and more happiness and benefit to yourself and others,” and it enables you to “dream bigger dreams and take more chances in life since if you lose your way, you’ve got a beacon to home in on.”

How To Determine Your Set Of Guiding Principles

Of course, every business leader should follow some universal values, such as treating people with respect and operating with integrity. But leaders should also implement specific guiding principles that align with their companies’ values, missions, visions, goals and cultures. Additionally, these principles should help leaders remain committed to their own unique purpose and beliefs. Just because a principle works for one business leader doesn’t mean it will work for another.

For instance, I have many personal guiding principles that my various life and career experiences have helped me develop over the years. Some of the ones I stress the most to myself and my team are:

  • Trust and loyalty:These two principles are the foundation of building strong relationships with all of my constituents, as they power collaboration and communication.
  • Empowerment, responsibility and accountability: Accountability is one of our company’s values. We empower everyone on the team to take risks and drive outcomes, entrusting them with responsibilities for which we hold each other accountable.
  • Leading from the front: I don’t ask anyone to do something I’m not willing to do myself, and I ask that my team members take the same approach. Asking someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself is detrimental to building credibility and trust. Everyone has to do their part to drive great results, even if their part isn’t necessarily in their direct job description.
  • Standing up for your beliefs: This is one of the keys to practicing ethical behavior. I expect my team members and myself to speak up for what we believe in and stay true to ourselves. For me, this is what allows me to look at myself in the mirror every day.

There’s no exact formula for selecting guiding principles. As long as you intentionally set them (instead of borrowing them from here and there), reflect on them and ensure they align with your individual and organizational belief systems, you’re on the right path. Also, guiding principles often evolve over time. You shouldn’t expect to define them all at once; rather, you should expect to revisit them from time to time. I developed my set of principles over the span of my career, and other leaders will likely find that as they grow and evolve, so will their principles.

How To Implement And Live By Your Guiding Principles

Implementing your guiding principles starts with living them—ensuring that your principles and actions align. When your constituents see that you abide by the principles of which you speak, they’ll notice. This ties back to one of my guiding principles: leading from the front. If you don’t live by the principles you set, you can’t expect others to do so.

In terms of imparting your guiding principles to your company, what I’ve found works best is talking about them and making them more or less part of your organization’s DNA. For our company, our guiding principles are just how we live life. Our leadership team regularly communicates and reinforces what we stand for.

What’s more, encourage your team members to develop their own guiding principles that they can use alongside yours. When you and everyone on your team are anchored by a foundational way of moving through the business world, you’ll see incredible results that open new doors for your company.

Read the Forbes article here

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