Principle Centered Leadership

The whole point of principle centered leadership, as articulated by Stephen Covey (Oct 24, 1932 – July 16, 2012) is that it should provide significant, sustainable quality for your company or organization. As delineated by Covey, the theory is intelligent, sensible and desirable, but in the wrong hands, or with those managers who are less that 100% committed to all of the tenets that Covey outlines, it can fail pretty spectacularly.

Covey’s research identified that managers across the USA recognised that “organizational culture” was one of the most important contributing factors to the development of quality within a company or business. With this in mind he developed the theory of principle centred leadership which sought to improve quality and productivity, through the enhancement of personal and professional relationships and offer a more balanced and rewarding life experience for adherents.

Principle centred leadership depends on a consistent, compatible and unified response from an organization. The combination of mission, principles, values and vision has to be shared across the workforce. Covey noted that, “an organization’s culture is the collective behaviour of its people. And it is collective human behaviour that creates or implements every element of quality — materials, processes, systems, products, and services”.

Principle Leadership

Considering Principle Centered Leadership

Covey theorises that within every organization there need to be three integrated elements: its primary purpose; its desired future; and its core beliefs about itself and others.

·       The primary purpose is the mission statement which is a general statement about what the organisation is and what it does

·       The desired future is also known as the organization’s vision and is therefore a more concrete description of its destiny and where it is going

·       The core beliefs consist of values and principles; where values are what are important to the organisation, and what priorities it has. These are CREATED. Principles however are timeless and unchanging.

Covey states that in order for an organization to be healthy and successful, these three integrated elements must be shared by managers and all other employees. This seems like a common sense approach, surely?

How do you put principle centered leadership into practice?

The first responsibility of the manager is to establish exactly what identity the company or organization has. What is its mission? What is its vision? Its principles and values? Once you have established what the principles are you need to consider whether they are conducive to effectiveness and quality, because after all, they are the components that will lead the organization in the desired direction.

Secondly, the leader needs to create the conditions that will enable the organizational culture to internalize and apply the principles. The tricky bit is ensuring that everyone lives by the same principles.

Covey is adamant that if everyone can work in harmony, then co-operative synergy, innovation and quality will follow.

What are the characteristics of principle centered leaders?

1.     Principle centered leaders are always learning. They seek to be educated constantly. They are open minded and open to new ideas, they like to learn new skills and find new interests for themselves. They realize that the more they learn, the more they discover they don’t know.

2.     Principle centred leaders are service oriented. They consider others before themselves.

3.     Principle centered leaders are full of positivity and foster a ‘can do’ attitude. They are optimistic, upbeat, generous and enthusiastic.

4.     Principle centered leaders believe in other people and their unseen potential, because this allows for personal growth and presents opportunities, initially to individuals but then to the organisation as well. Principle centred leaders are compassionate, they hold no grudges, they forgive and forget. They don’t label, categorise or pre-judge.

5.     Principle centred leaders strive for a work life balance. They keep up-to-date with the news; they are sociable and have fun. They are active and exercise. They keep learning. Everything is in proportion; they are not workaholics, zealots, or addicts etc.

6.     Principle centered leaders see life as an adventure.

7.     Principle centred leaders seek synergy. They work with the holistic, see the whole, adapt and encourage change in new and creative ways. They build on the strengths of individuals and the organization. They recognise that the organization is the sum of its parts.

Principle centered leadership and success

According to Covey, success within an organization can be anchored if the principles are shared throughout the organisation. As a manager you are ‘creating’ an environment and a company philosophy where the workers share the vision and goals. Decisions can only be taken in light of jointly agreed principles. No-one is able to take decisions as individuals for themselves; they must only do it for the greater good. By focusing on the principles you empower everyone to act in the best ways they can; you do away with the need for constant monitoring, evaluation, correction and control.

Covey’s four fundamentals of principle centered leadership

1.     As a leader you need to embed personal trustworthiness

2.     Trust is interpersonal – both sides should be trusting and trustworthy

3.     The managerial principle is that you empower others. As a manager you are not there to supervise but to offer guidance and assistance

4.     The organizational principle encourages alignment between the principles of values, strategy, style, structure and systems

The four fundamentals of principle centred leadership are interdependent and everyone must sign up to them and also reap the benefits and rewards.

Principle centered leadership: A Utopian Ideal?

Covey’s theory of principle centred leadership has understandably received a great deal of acclaim, but there is something that is strangely utopian about it. It has been lauded as a set of beliefs that can be applied to both organizations and to individuals; after all, as a manager you are indeed an individual and Covey suggests you live by the tenets. However, at what stage does your responsibility and needs as a manager ‘to create the conditions that will enable the organizational culture to internalize and apply the principles’ impinge on the principles and individuality of others? What happens if individuals (freethinkers, radicals etc.) within a whole organization cannot agree on the vision? Is there coercion? Are views or needs ignored? Do those people become redundant? Does fear then become a factor among those that remain in the organization?

At what stage do personal freedom and the work/life balance take a back seat to the corporate culture? How do you deal with human inefficiency if principle centred leadership does not allow you to pre-judge, or evaluate and insists you must be compassionate? How do you deal with disagreement among your employees? Or distrust among those who think differently? What do you do if you come across corruption?

Covey’s principle centred leadership is a wonderful premise. You can use it to better yourself and be a positive and active manager who strives to work productively and help others work productively in an environment that is enthusiastically changing for the better. However, when you start to apply the principles to others, when you encourage them to utilise the principles, when you put pressure on them, where does principle centred leadership stop and a new form of dictatorship begin?


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