Leadership Philosophy

Dr. Charles R. Severance

Throughout my career, I have enjoyed a wide range of positions from individual contributor to director where my primary contribution was leadership. My career approach has not been simply to climb upwards to higher and higher positions. I find that moving into and out of leadership / administrative roles is a way to make sure that I am always challenging myself and learning from each new opportunity.

Because I have moved into and out of leadership positions throughout my career, I have come to the point where I see leadership as simply one more necessary resource for any organization. It is important for an organization to see its leaders as important parts of a team rather than some special creatures that inhabit the corner offices, board rooms, airports, hotels, and taxis.

A leader's primary responsibility is to meet the goals and objectives of the organization through taking care of and improving the efficiency of the management and employees of that organization. A leader only rarely gives orders - when a leader must resort to giving orders to get something done, it indicates that something is out of balance in the organization and when people are forced to do something they do not want to do, it often incurs a future cost to the organization.

Even when a leader involves the organziation broadly in information gathering and decision making, they still retain the responsibility for both the successes and the failures of the organization. A true leader does not look for anyone to blame other than themselves when things do not work out as planned.

While my leadership philosophy is my own, there are several books that nicely capture my leadership style.

The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowecki

This book is a nearly perfect summary of my leadership style. The essence of the book is that properly constructed groups are far wiser than hand-selected "experts". The essence of a well-functioning organization is open communication, permission to disagree, willingness to hear and encourage alternate viewpoints, and a search for the real truth rather than doggedly making top-down decisions following the management hierarchy and chasing experts. I am fond of saying that an organization functions best when its "chief architect" or "leader" is not the most brilliant person in the organization and is aware of that fact. It ensures that other members of the team can truly challenge the leader's thinking and decisions in a constructive way and that the leader does not go too far astray in their thinking.

The Starfish and the Spider - The Power of Leaderless Organizations, Ori Brafman and Rod A Beckstrom

This book looks at how an organization that allows diffuse leadership and diffuse decision making (i.e., the Starfish) is far more resilient to problems, challenges, and opportunities than an organization with a strict, central top-down control (i.e., the Spider). You can kill a spider with a single tiny pinprick to the right location. However, you can cut a starfish in half and both parts will heal and regrow to become complete starfish. The more power held tightly in a corner office, the more likely that the organization will fail because of a single small mistake or omission. Again, the conclusion from this book is that an informed leader must do all they can to distribute decision making, command, and control away from themselves.

There are, indeed, times where an organization needs to react in a consistent and unified manner and in these situations a strong leader is necessary. But for normal activities, a leader must develop other members of the organization to take on essential roles, mentor them, and support them as they learn new leadership skills. A leader should always be willing to let go of responsibilities when others in the organization are capable of handling leadership tasks. Delegation, development, and mentoring allow a leader to have some "spare" resources available to be ready to react quickly when new organizational opportunities arise.


The core of my leadership style is that the power one has and/or gains in a leadership position is the least significant part of the job. The most important part is to understand the purpose and goals of that organization and develop a high-functioning team that can accomplish those goals. If a leader is doing their job well, the organization will become increasingly effective over time and find themselves expanding into new opportunities because of this performance.

While it is important for a leader to do the things that make the "trains run on time", simple management of operations is not the primary purpose of a real leader. A real leader finds ways to make sure that the operations within an organization run effectively, but this is often done by delegating operational responsibility to others.

At times, a leader must make small and large decisions and it is essential that a leader always have a plan - even if that plan is evolving when new situations and information are encountered. Sometimes an organization simply needs a decision to be made one way or another so it can move forward. At those times, a true leader will understand the nature of the team and organization well enough or be wise enough to consult the crowd - to make the right choice most of the time.

At times the role of leadership is to step in and be a calming and unifying force.

A well-run organization is continuously expanding and attracting new resources and tasks because it is clear that resources will be used effectively. A well-run organization is calm and confident, and its members feel like they are part of a team. A well-run organization is always looking for new and interesting challenges to expand its impact.