What kind of leader do you want to be? Understand your leadership principles

What kind of leader do you want to be?
How will personal leadership principles help you?

I learned about the concept of leadership principles from Gary Sullivan and it helped me to better understand what kind of leader I want to be.

Join Gary and me while we will talk about the following points:

  • What are personal leadership principles?
  • Why are they important to have?
  • What should they be about and what not?
  • How do you use them?
  • How to establish them?

See also episode My Personal Leadership Experience.

Gary Sullivan, PhD

Gary Sullivan, PhD

Gary is currently consults as a Leadership Specialist and Statistical Scientist for my company Espirer Consulting since March, 2018. Before this, he was the Senior Director for Non-Clinical Statistics at Eli Lilly and Company, where he worked for 28 years.  He also worked as a technical statistician in Non-Clinical Statistics for the first half of my career at Eli Lilly.

He led the development and instruction of the first leadership course at the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) of the American Statistical Association (ASA) in 2014..  He has provided leadership training to over 500 statisticians and data scientists, both at Eli Lilly and within the ASA. In addition, he has authored several articles and a book chapter on leadership for statisticians.

He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Statistics from the University of Pittsburgh, and both a Master’s and Doctorate in Statistics from Iowa State University. 

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More about Gary


Alexander: Welcome to another episode of The Effective Statistician. And today it’s again with my good friend, Gary. Hi Gary. How are you doing?

Gary:  I’m doing great Alexander. How have you been? 

Alexander: Yeah, it’s one of the first things I’m actually doing in 2022, now recording this episode with Gary. And it’s about one of our loved topics about leadership. And today we want to really talk about leadership principles. Why is it great to have these? What are our leadership principles? And how can you establish your own leadership principles? So let’s talk a little bit about your journey to it. When have you first come across this topic of leadership principles? 

Gary: Yeah, the first time it was put to me in terms of specifically leadership principles and actually naming out your leadership principles was when I took a leadership course back in 2009. And we talked about a lot of things throughout the course. It was like a week-long course, but the last thing they had us do they said we want you to define your leadership principles and I don’t remember the specific guidance they gave. I’m not even sure whether they gave us any examples or anything. But, they gave us quite a bit of time. Probably about a couple hours, maybe even half a day to think about these principles. And that was the first time I had heard of such a thing specifically, and the first time I began to draft my own leadership principles. And it really was an interesting, very sort of self-reflective type of experience. It is something everybody should do obviously which we’ll talk about, I guess. 

Alexander: Yeah, I completely agree. I learned about this from you and we also teach about this in our leadership program and we got really, really good feedback from a couple of different participants about this. And this exercise is really, really helpful. So for all those who are listening and have already finished. These programs and you probably already have these and have reflected about these but it’s always good to also update your learning on these.

Gary: Yeah, I would say even, I know we talked about it in our leadership training but for statisticians that are just tuning in, I think it’s good for them to have principles to whether they think of them from a standpoint of leadership or influence or just being an effective statistician. What are your principles? So it’s not something that I think just applies to people that are on a leadership journey. 

Alexander: Yeah. Well, we talk anyway in terms of leadership really, about leadership was a little so to say, yeah, it’s about influencing others. It’s not necessarily about being a supervisor or being an administrative leader. And it’s really important for everybody. So why is it important to have such leadership principles? 

Gary: I’m going to steal something and you have recommended this book to me by a friend, Malik. The title of the book is Managing, Performing and Living. And, he kind of expressed it very, I think, concisely talks about management principles, but he, I think, expressed it very concisely from a standpoint of leadership principles  in a sense, guiding your actions. And I think that’s a really nice way to think about it. Now, we can kind of delve into that, like, people might say, ‘Well, you know, other things guide my actions too’ or maybe some people think, ‘I’m not really even sure what guides my actions. I just act accordingly or act to try to do the right thing’. But I think that really does sort of concisely express leadership principles. Or you might even ask the question, ‘Just what is it that guides your actions on an everyday basis?’ And that will sort of start you on the path. I think of exploring, ‘Okay, what things do I come across? What challenges do I face? What do I do from a day-to-day standpoint, week to week?’ And it’ll really help you think deeply about that question. 

Alexander: And I think it also helps you to reflect on, what are the principles that you want to live by that you want to, you know, work by? And you can have different priorities on this. Yeah, and so thinking about these can kind of help you to become the person you want to be in your job because if you don’t have this kind of end in mind, it’s really difficult to establish the steps moving forward. Yeah, citing Stephen Covey in terms of effective people always has the end in mind. And in terms of personal development you also should have some goals in mind. And these principles can be kind of goals for you to work towards. 

Gary: Yeah, and I think what people will find and we can talk about sort of going through this exercise and stuff but people will find that they do already have principles. They may just not have ever written them down or they may have what might amount to a long list of principles or just guidelines that, like I said, sort of control their behavior in a sense. So it’s not like you’re starting from scratch. Like saying, ‘Oh, I never thought about never having principles before’. Everybody has principles and it’s kind of based on their growth as an individual, their experiences, the people around them, their role models. So everyone will find that. They already have experiences. But it’s really an interesting exercise to go through to try to hone that down to, I think, a few that really encompass, as you said, sort of who you want to be as a leader. 

Alexander: Yeah, and I think that is what they should be about. How do you want to be, as a leader? Now, sometimes it’s really good to understand things from a different perspective. So, what are they not about? 

Gary: Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s a hard question too. And maybe the best way to think about it is maybe to touch on like, a couple examples. So, and essentially want them to guide your actions on a long-term basis. And maybe there’s a distinction, in a sense between principles and goals, is one way to think about it. Those goals might be more short-term and your leadership principles can change too but I would think they are longer-term and more sort of lasting, but maybe a quick example, might be a few write down something like, ‘I want to be a top performer’. Okay, that’s really not a principle. That’s more of a goal. Okay. I want to be, you know, rated highly, or I want to get to this position, I mean, that’s essentially a goal. The principles would be things that in a sense are going to guide you. As you manage in a sense your career, whether it’s from day-to-day, year to year, you know, job to job. And they may change slightly ,I think, from different roles, but they should be pretty sustainable. So I would say there are more things that are long-term. So surprising to stay away from those things that strike you as specific goals. 

Alexander: Yeah, and I think they should also be more general, not too specific. Like, ‘I want to write a good email’. It’s kind of maybe you want a more say like, ‘I want to be a great communicator that is easily understood and gets the message across effectively’, or ‘I want to be a good listener’, more of these kinds of key activities that you want to do. 

Gary: Yeah, I agree. Exactly. 

Alexander: Okay. So how did you come to yours? 

Gary: Again, I don’t specifically remember but I remember going through like a lot of iterations. Okay, because when the questions are first presented, you start to think about lots of different things, as you said like, ‘why am I a good listener? I want to operate with integrity.  I want to do this. I want to be a trustworthy person. I want to be reliable. I want to be a person that’s, you know, action-oriented’, I mean, you can come up with a whole longer list of things and maybe that’s a kind of a good way to start to try to come up with those things that are really important to you as a statistician or as a leader. So I don’t think it’s a bad idea to just start to think about, you know, different types of principles or characteristics and then start to relate those to experiences. Okay. So for example, you might think of different challenges you’ve had in the course of your career to this point. And you might think about how you behaved or acted or what guided your actions in those situations and then thinking back on those. Think about it, was I happy with the way I behaved there? or With the actions I took or, was I not happy? Do I look back on that? And say, I could have done better. Or I might have behaved better. I might have acted better. And those things are really good triggers to in a sense that, ‘Okay, I need to be more like this in terms of my actions.’ I think also just as we talked about in our leadership course, observing different leaders, different styles of leadership. And when you think of people that maybe you admire as leaders thinking about things like what are some characteristics they have, what are some things that I think guide their actions. And that might give you examples and just as we talked about in our leadership program, you can’t, in a sense, completely copy someone’s, their leadership form, but you can certainly learn from them. And you might say, ‘Yeah, I really admire that person as a leader because they seem to do this very well. And it might be something like they have a great way of communicating or they listen with empathy or you know, is that something that I can achieve too. And is that something that’s going to be important in my role, in my growth as a leader. The other way I think about things like, how do you want people to view you? When they think of you, you know, we talked about the importance of a brand. And this in a sense can be consistent with your brand. When they think about me or think about my brand, what are some of the things I want them to think about, what are some things that should come to mind to them? So in a sense, defining your brand, what are the words, characteristics, behaviors, actions that would drive a brand that you would feel comfortable with. And having people think about that when they think about you. 

Alexander: Yeah, I completely agree. I think it’s really good to start with a reflection of a situation that really helps shape you. So these can probably be situations that you remember very easily because you either felt very proud of them, or you really didn’t feel proud about them. And so, I can remember, for example, a discussion at the table where we talked about some study design features. And so there was a push for a certain feature from one of the more senior people. And I wasn’t really convinced about it, but I didn’t feel like I could say something against it and so I remained silent. And I really didn’t feel proud about this they do on and so that is an area where you can think and reflect, ‘Okay, who do I want to be in the future? I want to be courageous and I want to, you know, speak up’. Or maybe there’s other areas that, you know, you feel like you’re constantly behind stuff and you’re not reliable in a sense. Or maybe you’re always the last one to decide as you’re so kind of stuck in analyzing all the details that  it’s really hard for you to come to a conclusion. So these kinds of things can I help you to understand where you want to change? But also look into, you know, what people say about you positively.  You are maybe very detail oriented or that you’re always providing high-quality things like that. Look both from the bad and the good of the both of. In terms of where you want to go, I think, it also depends on, What are your long-term visions for yourself? What kind of person do you need to become to accomplish these visions? Whether that is doing a certain job or getting a certain expertise, getting a certain influence. What are the characteristics that you need to live by? What are these principles you need to live by to get there? Is that you want to be someone that is a really great communicator or is it said it’s most important that you can get across your technical capabilities and technical knowledge in the best way or is it really that you need to be, you know, very assertive and drive things forward really, really fast. So I think there’s lots of different ways you can look into these internally. What have you done? And what have you accomplished? But also externally kind of where you want to go. 

Gary: And I think, to your point, I think you’ll find some of them are or may be sustainable in the same from role to role. And it’s in some ways I think , that’s comforting because it in a sense says that’s part of who you are as a person. That’s really deep inside you. And I like your idea of reflecting on different experiences and stuff. And I can think of situations. And these are situations that I would think through sometimes with a mentor. I remember having a discussion with a mentor, during my first management position, where I talked about a situation where we were having a team-building activity and it was going to start like, I don’t know 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock and it was off-site. And I remember telling my staff and I want you to come into work before that. Okay, and they did. And then I was talking about this with my mentor and long story short. They were telling me like, does that really embody trust in them? If you’re saying that in a sense, you don’t  trust that they’re going to, you know, put in their hours or do their responsibilities when they’re not under your watchful eye and I kind of realized like yeah, it’s not that it just didn’t feel right. And now I understand why and it really sort of embodied this notion of trust which is a principle I’ve had for as long as I can remember. But then, to your point, I remember pushing back on an executive director who was wanting to do something when I was working in manufacturing, it wasn’t ethical or illegal. It was just the direction that I didn’t want my group to go and it had led to some bad experiences for us. And I remember standing my ground and having that person get a little bit upset at me. But, you know, when I thought about that, it’s like, yeah, that’s who I want to be, that’s how I want to behave in those situations that I want to not give in to someone and want to maintain the principles that I have. And the principles that I think our organization needs to have. So that’s a great way to look at things to consider lots of different types of experiences and think about why you behave the way you do and what were some of the characteristics, or the things that drove those behaviors. I think the other thing that people will find is, once they do this reflective exercise, it might even take you several months or maybe a year to really come to finalize what your principles are. In a sense, you might find that you don’t really need to have a list of them in front of you. Because once you go through this exercise you, I mean, you have so many thoughts about this and you spend so much time thinking about them that in a sense you’ve come to a conclusion as to what they are. And you don’t really need to like, have a list and say, okay, here’s a challenge I’m facing. What are my principles? It’s like, you know what they are and there might be occasions where you might go back to them and I can talk about some examples there. But really, they are within you, and you don’t really need to sort of carry around a list. I don’t know if you’ve had it.

Alexander: Yep. I had for quite some time. I had a reminder in my calendar to look at the list after I first created it. And once in a while I would tweak them. Yeah, I would add something or maybe I would ,you know, these three topics as they actually belong together and there’s some kind of underlying principle here and then, you know, I could shorten them. I also added a quote at one point. That for me, was kind of encompassing lots of these different things in a nice way. And so that’s how I established them. And I completely agree with you, over time, you more embody these, you have these subconsciously in your brain and they help you  then to drive actions to drive decisions according to these principles. 

Gary: It’s almost like, if people think about it like a sport, okay? That they do again and again and again and practice that it almost becomes muscle memory. Like once you’re in that situation, your muscle memory takes over and this would be sort of I guess intellectual or moral memory or something like that. Once you’re faced with those situations. You don’t have to step back and think like if you’re playing a sport, okay, I need to position myself here, and I need to have my body in this position first. And we need to think about, you know, this piece first. Athletes don’t do that. And I think good leaders and good statisticians don’t do that too. It’s all in a sense muscle memory to them. They just react after they’ve practiced them, reflected on them, thought about them, revisited them, confirmed them. It just becomes muscle memory. 

Alexander: Yeah, and as you act more and more according to them, you know, you become more and more the person you want to be. And the principles you want to live by,

Gary: Well, you might have to go back and just refresh them for yourself because and I think again, I think the analogy to sort of sports is good that sometimes athletes will get out of 

a rhythm or they’ll develop a bad habit and then they need to step away and say, okay, what am I doing wrong there? And so, if you have kind of a bad experience, or you didn’t act in a way that you wanted to, you’ll know, immediately and you’ll sort of step back and say, wait a minute, that was not acting according to my principles. And those are certainly things that happen to everybody where you just have to step back and remind yourself and again, sort of reaffirm and recommit yourself.

Alexander: Yeah, so it can be kind of a change in your personal or professional life that, you know, truly out of calls and you know you end up in a position where you’re maybe struggling quite a lot and unpleasant things happen over and over and that’s a signal that you probably need to revisit your goals and your principles. And how you want to move forward. And if you have good friends, they will remind you of this. 

Gary: Yeah, and the other piece is, if you project this to other people, I mean, think about and this may be sort of motivation as to why people need to have principles, is that,  and I’m sure you have just as I have worked with people that one. Maybe they behave differently in different situations or in one situation they behave a certain way and in a different situation where you think the same principle should apply, they behave differently. Okay. So that’s a person. I don’t want to call them unprincipled, but in a sense, they’re unpredictable. Okay, behavior is not consistent. And if you think about those types of people, it’s really not a lot of fun working with them because you never know what you’re going to get from them. You never know how they’re going to respond to a comment or react in a certain situation. And just when you think, Okay. They’re going to do this because that’s what they did the last time and then they act differently. Okay, that really keeps you off-balance. It probably keeps other people off balance and it doesn’t really create a productive type of environment for working. 

Alexander: Yeah, it doesn’t really create trust because if you are unpredictable, you can’t really be trusted. So, yeah, that’s a very good example. It’s also looking into others and seeing them behaving in a way you don’t want to behave. Helps you also to get these leadership principles. So that’s maybe the negative examples can also help you to get very crystal clear on how you want to be because you don’t want to behave like this person inside the situation. 

Gary: Yeah. 

Alexander: Thanks so much. That was a really really good discussion about leadership principles. We discussed why they are important to have and how they help you to progress personally. How you can get to these overtime and that in the end you can really use them in lots of lots of different situations and by using them over and over again, you will embody more and more. Any last comment for the listener?

Gary: Yeah. One thing I don’t know that we talked about they might have the question like well, how many principles should I have? Okay, and I would go back to some of the stuff we talked about our leadership role in terms of communication like the rule of three is always good. And I know that’s a really small number. So if you want to do, you know, 4 or 5 in that range, that’s reasonable, I think. You can’t have like 10, 15 or 30? That’s just too many. Trying to get it down to something, you know, three, four, five, I think is a good guide. And I think one fear people have is that won’t that can’t cover everything. But you’ll be surprised how a lot of these things, when you decide them, connect to other important principles and they overlap. So, I’ll bet you, if you come up with three or four or five good ones, you’ll be pretty satisfied. 

Alexander: Yeah, I completely agree. It’s the same as this company’s communications. If your company has 15 different principles they live by, it’s really, really difficult. Thanks so much for this great discussion. And if you want to learn more about leadership, there are quite a lot of different leadership episodes that Gary and I have recorded together over the years. And so, just scroll back or head over to theeffectivestatistician.com. Just search for Gary’s name and you’ll find lots of lots of content with respect to leadership. Thanks so much. 

Gary: Thanks for having me. 

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