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We’ve all heard of individuals described as “natural-born leaders,” and while some people do seem to have an innate ability to lead, the truth is that most good leaders develop their skills over many years. Like most things, leadership can be taught, and the core skill set honed over time. So strong is the belief that good leaders are made and not born that there are entire degree programs dedicated to leadership skills and learning to be a great leader.

Although courses, seminars, and degrees abound, we’re cutting through the fluff and honing in on the skill set you need to be a strong leader, and it begins and ends with your core principles. Stick to these core leadership principles, and you’ll be well on your way to successful leadership.

What Are Leadership Principles?

leadership principles

Principles serve as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior. They are fundamental truths, rules, and codes of conduct. Thus, leadership principles provide the foundation for effective leadership behavior and act as the common denominator among the differences and unique attributes that organizational leaders bring to the table.

What Is the Importance of Principles of Leadership?

Leadership can make or break your organization. A great leader will inspire employees, while ineffective leaders will hamper growth and may drive team members away. Leadership style will impact the work environment, so it’s critical to establish clear expectations for how leaders should behave within an organization.

This is why establishing leadership principles is essential. Identifying main principles and providing training and recognition will ensure that leadership behavior is aligned, improving organizational performance and elevating the performance bar for the whole team.

Principles of Leadership to Know for Successful Leaders

While organizations regularly set core principles for success, aspiring leaders can set themselves apart by similarly establishing their core leadership principles and ideal leadership style.

Remember, great leaders are made, and leadership skills can be learned. Self-improvement is always a goal of the best leaders, and adopting these 15 leadership principles as the foundation for your leadership style will have you well on your way to effective leadership.

1. Be Honest

be honest

Honesty is the best policy, especially when it comes to being a leader. While this should go without saying, too many individuals in leadership positions need to be more consistently honest with themselves and their teams. Often, it’s a lack of transparency that makes a leader appear dishonest, but while uncomfortable conversations will happen more often as a result of open and honest communication, it’s better to confront any issues head-on rather than let them fester and grow into something bigger.

Honesty isn’t just an admirable trait to have. It is a core tenant of good leadership because of its impact on employees and customers. Honest leaders build trust and respect with those around them, and employees are willing to go the extra mile, cooperate with, and be loyal to honest leaders. No matter your leadership style, open communication and honesty should be high on your list of core leadership principles.

2. Be Clear About Your Purpose and Role

Purpose is the reason why something is done. It is your intention or objective. Your purpose, both individually and collectively, is at the heart of an organization. Without a clear purpose, you’re like a rudderless ship sailing without direction.

Great leaders understand their purpose within an organization or group and their personal purpose. A clear vision for what you want to accomplish as a person, professional, and leader is critical to success.

Similarly, effective leaders also understand their role within the organization. No matter your status, you’re first and foremost a team member, and it’s vital that you clearly understand what that entails. Generally speaking, a good leader’s primary role is to create an environment where others can flourish.

3. Show Whom You Serve

Many think of those in leadership positions as the boss who calls all the shots. While there is an element of truth to that idea, great leaders don’t look at their position as a path to power, but as an opportunity to serve. It is easy to get caught up in a power trip, but the best leaders understand that their success goes hand in hand with that of the entire company and its team members.

So before you act, be clear about who you are trying to serve. If you’re primarily serving yourself, it’s time to reevaluate your guiding principles.

4. Set Transparent Expectations

transparent expectations

Employees need to know what is expected of them to succeed. While some of what is expected in a role is implied, and many employees will regularly seek input about their performance, it is the responsibility of leadership to have a clear vision for reaching business goals and providing feedback to the team.

Be upfront about what you expect from yourself and your team, and don’t hesitate to communicate your expectations if someone veers off track. Ambiguity about expectations will only increase anxiety in your team and will likely hamper productivity.

5. Admit Mistakes

As the saying goes, to err is human. Unfortunately, many leaders equate leading with being always right. Of course, no one wants to make a mistake, and it takes maturity and courage to acknowledge your errors, but the best leaders do. They admit to their mistakes, help fix them, and seek to learn from them.

Leaders willing to admit to their mistakes and learn from them set an excellent example for their employees, garnering respect and decreasing anxiety. A work environment where team members aren’t afraid of making mistakes will foster more ideas and innovation.

6. Be Values-Based

Generally speaking, most people agree on what is “right,” and all organizations have an established set of values, at least on paper. But what good is valuing honesty, respect, innovation, collaboration, or anything else if those values remain on paper and are not woven into the day-to-day actions and operations of the organization?

Being values-based and values-driven means not just knowing or saying what is right but actually doing it. As a leader, it is critical that you model and promote the values of your organization as well as your own.

7. Show Authenticity

“Fake it till you make it” is another common phrase that suggests that imitating the qualities you seek will help you achieve them. While pretending you are more confident or competent than you are could be helpful in some circumstances, most leaders will get further with their teams by being authentic.

Although easier said than done, being authentic involves accepting who you are, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and having the self-confidence to share those things with others. Being authentic also means staying true to your values and what makes you uniquely you rather than succumbing to pressure to assimilate or act otherwise. Good leaders are true to themselves and encourage those around them to be authentic as well.

8. Listen More Than You Speak


An excellent leader knows that communication must be a two-way street. While communicating information and expectations to your employees is necessary, what point is there in hiring exceptional talent if you aren’t willing to listen to them? It’s important that leaders in an organization regularly call on their teams for new ideas and feedback.

More importantly, they must be willing to listen to and implement those ideas. Leaders focused on self-improvement and serving others must be able to listen more than they speak.

9. Lead by Example

Good leaders not only talk the talk, but they also walk the talk. Leading by example is a critical leadership principle that is a prerequisite for all current and aspiring future leaders. The captain of the ship sets the tone for the entire crew, and if the leader is unprofessional, unreliable, or dishonest, that behavior will impact the timbre of the entire team.

A disconnect between what a leader expects from their team and their own actions can be especially damaging. As a leader, it’s important to be a role model for those around you, which includes modeling organizational values, appropriately handling frustration and setbacks, and being open and honest about mistakes. It’s part of what makes an effective leadership philosophy.

10. Never Quit Learning

keep learning

Many in leadership positions think their way is the highway, and they always know best. On the contrary, good leaders understand their strengths and weaknesses, that nobody can know or be proficient at everything, and that being a lifelong learner is a tenant of being a successful leader.

No matter how much experience we have or how good we are at something, there are always areas in which we can improve and grow. Identify the specific skills you wish to acquire or improve upon and make a plan to do so.

11. Be a Team Player

One of the most essential leadership principles is humility, regardless of your leadership role or organization. It’s a cliche, but teamwork really is the key to success, and no one person can do it all. Especially as a business leader, the success of your team and your company will come down to how well you can work as a team rather than your individual accolades.

As Steve Jobs once stated in his 60 Minutes interview, “Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”

12. Welcome Change and Innovation

Change is inevitable but challenging for most, as humans seem hardwired to resist change and the unknowns that come with it. However, a good leader understands that changes will happen and embraces the new possibilities that come with them. After all, we must change to improve and grow, both personally and within an organization.

Therefore, rather than be satisfied with standing pat, make welcoming innovation and the changes that come with it an opportunity for growth and a core leadership principle for success.

13. Have Self-Awareness

Successfully implementing many of the leadership principles on this list requires some level of self-awareness. Still, like anything, self-awareness is a skill that can be cultivated and is critical to long-term successful leadership.

Simply put, self-awareness is the ability to be introspective and understand what makes you an individual, why you do what you do, and how you impact others. Self-awareness includes knowing your values, strengths and weaknesses, emotions, and why you behave the way you do. Self-awareness also includes knowing how others see you and pursuing constructive feedback on areas that could be blind spots.

By actively seeking to understand the motivations and reasons behind your behavior, thoughts, and emotions, as well as gaining the feedback of others, you can learn to see yourself more clearly and take steps to fill any gaps.

14. Develop Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your emotions as well as understand and influence the emotions of those around you. Those with high emotional intelligence are more apt to deal with stress effectively, resolve conflict, and demonstrate empathy.

Self-awareness is one component of emotional intelligence, but it also entails self-managing, including emotions and impulses, social awareness, and successfully navigating interpersonal relationships.

Research shows that the strongest predictor of performance is emotional intelligence, so it’s no surprise that the most effective and successful leaders are able to utilize their emotional intelligence to balance all the critical aspects that running a team entails.

15. Support Good Ideas Over People

support good ideas

The last leadership principle to incorporate into your repertoire is the practice of supporting ideas over people. That isn’t to say that people aren’t important and that you shouldn’t strive to make all members of your team feel respected and valued. It simply means that ideas should be given credence based on their value and not who they come from.

Good leaders don’t play favorites; when a leader appears to favor certain team members over others, people notice, and resentment develops. Instead, seek to unify and uplift the entire team by valuing all opinions and consideration to all ideas.

How to Use These Leadership Skills to Become a Successful Leader

Skillful leadership is crucial to achieving the long-term goals of any organization. However, talented leadership doesn’t happen overnight and is not the result of some innate God-given talent. Behind every great leader are years of hard work, introspection, failures, and lessons learned.

Successful leadership is a juggling act and a constant evaluation and recalibration of yourself, your team members, and the whole organization. While it can seem overwhelming to balance and demonstrate proficiency in all of the leadership principles described above, remember that the best leaders are lifelong learners who are constantly seeking improvement.

By making these 15 leadership principles the foundation of your leadership style and your goal to achieve, you’ve already set yourself apart and charted your path to maximizing your and your team’s potential.


About the Author

Riley Adams is the Founder and CEO of WealthUp (previously Young and the Invested). He is a licensed CPA who worked at Google as a Senior Financial Analyst overseeing advertising incentive programs for the company’s largest advertising partners and agencies. Previously, he worked as a utility regulatory strategy analyst at Entergy Corporation for six years in New Orleans.

His work has appeared in major publications like Kiplinger, MarketWatch, MSN, TurboTax, Nasdaq, Yahoo! Finance, The Globe and Mail, and CNBC’s Acorns. Riley currently holds areas of expertise in investing, taxes, real estate, cryptocurrencies and personal finance where he has been cited as an authoritative source in outlets like CNBC, Time, NBC News, APM’s Marketplace, HuffPost, Business Insider, Slate, NerdWallet, Investopedia, The Balance and Fast Company.

Riley holds a Masters of Science in Applied Economics and Demography from Pennsylvania State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Finance from Centenary College of Louisiana.