Conducting Transformation: Guiding Principles

Guiding Principles are the compass that keeps leaders on track.

I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions. 

― Stephen R. Covey

CompassGuiding principles are statements that guide our decisions and keep us true to our “Basic Self*.” When guiding principles are clearly defined, leaders can apply these principles to decisions without compromising the fundamental values that shape our organizations and ourselves. This is called “Differentiation of Self” in Bowen Family Systems Theory.

Differentiation of Self is one of the eight Bowen concepts that define our basic self. As the leader remains solid in principles, he or she remains true to what Bowen refers to as “Basic Self.” Adherence to these principles keeps the leader from making decisions in the state Dr. Murray Bowen called “Pseudo Self” in which leaders make compromises to their principles to accommodate the desires of others.

In my leadership journey, it has been difficult to remain true to myself and my principles. I have sometimes opted to make a compromise in my principles to please others. I now see that decisions that compromise one’s guiding principles can be harmful to self and others.

Guiding principles anchor the leader in a way that guides decisions and influences others. I have created personal guiding principles for my personal life, principles for my relationship with my wife, and principles for my business. Each set of principles is consistent with the others and, as a whole, strengthens me and my leadership.

Here are some examples of Personal Guiding Principles (I set these for myself):

Principles that shape and guide my personal life:

  1. Always remain calm in spite of adversity and stay in my thinking self, rather than feeling self.
  2. Refer to #1.
  3. Focus on the few that matter, rather than the many that can confuse and create stress.
  4. Observe people, processes, and group interactions, and intervene only when appropriate.
  5. Maintain a personal discipline for food, rest, pace, study, play, work, writing, and relationships in order to be my healthiest self.
  6. Live out my leadership principles of Foundations, Relationships, Systems, and Balance.
  7. Read my guiding principles daily and highlight pathways to improvement.
  8. Pray without ceasing.
  9. Speak the truth in love – always.

Principles that shape my life as a leadership strategist:

  • Listen – listening is so close to loving that you really can’t tell the difference – listen actively
  • Ask questions – I’m not the “answer man”
  • Allow for silence in conversations – for clarity, for validation, for emphasis
  • Allow clients to find their own answers – don’t over-function
  • Do not see the failure of clients as my failure
  • Breathe

I set the context for group process – define deliverables, off-limits, background, and purpose of session (informational, brainstorming, decision-making, etc.)

  • I manage the process – I am the sole focus for the group
  • The participants are responsible for content – I manage process
  • I remain calm – I approach sources of conflict and interact with questions
  • I clearly define what we are not going to do (Off-Limits) – taking a stand
  • I observe people, ask for participation, and address people who are attempting to dominate
  • I set the context for speaking the truth in love – allowing all to remain separate, open, equal
  • I never use useless tools – agendas, chart pads, PowerPoints, because they are the enemy of productivity and barriers to relationship building

Examples of guiding principles for an organization (private school):

  • We will hold ourselves accountable to achieve tasks, goals, and deadlines we set for ourselves. We will act on details while keeping in mind the big picture.
  • We will help kids to adapt to the world as it is, prepare for the world that might be, and help create the world that ought to be.
  • We celebrate diversity in our membership and in the world. We explore Wisdom Traditions and cultural celebrations, engage in service learning, and work to contribute positively to both our local community and the larger global community.
  • We will not take money if it compromises our values. We do not compromise our values.
  • We will socialize people to our culture and we will resist pressures to assimilate with societal values that betray our core values (we will focus on our values rather than compare them to others).

The bottom line: leading without guiding principles is like trying to sail a boat without a rudder.

Have you written guiding principles for yourself, your professional and personal interactions, and for your enterprise?


* A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment.

Hugh Ballou

The Transformational Leadership Strategist

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(c) 2013 Hugh Ballou. All rights reserved.


Hugh Ballou (Author)