How To Write A Powerful Personal Leadership Manifesto

Why you need to clarify your leadership purpose

Adam Cairns
6 min readOct 8, 2019
  • What do you stand for?
  • What would you die in a ditch to protect?
  • How will you know if it’s time for you to go?

Do you know your answer to these questions?

If you’re a leader, or someone who aspires to be a leader, I’ve learnt that having a personal leadership manifesto helps.

A personal manifesto is a document you write for yourself.

It’s there whenever you need to remind yourself what you stand for and what you believe in.

Whenever you’re really tested, open it and remind yourself what really matters.

What you stand for, what you will and won’t accept and where your bottom line is.

These are massively empowering things for you to understand. Once you understand what yours are, you have the power to act on them.

Here are five steps you can use to build your personal leadership manifesto.

1. Understand Your Why

  • Why do you do what you do?
  • Why are you a leader at all?
  • What do you want your leadership to be about?

Your ‘why’ is the reason you became a leader.

What was it that made you want to lead?

Look below the surface and be honest with yourself.It doesn’t matter what’s there as long as you’re honest about it.

Here’s a list of five possible ‘why’ statements to get you started.

  1. I want to run my own ship so I can use my experience and test what I’ve learnt.
  2. I strongly believe I have something important to offer this organisation (say what is important to you).
  3. I believe in what this organisation is trying to do or become and I want to help it get there (be specific about what that purpose is).
  4. I like and respect the people who work in my team and I want to deliver on their potential to do good.
  5. I like the sound of being called CEO (I don’t recommend this one!).

One word of caution — be extra careful if you write the word ‘should’. ‘Should’ might suggest your why is actually not your own.

Whatever your why’s are, write them down and keep them somewhere. When you’re tested, you might find the courage you need by reminding yourself about your why.

He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

2. Be Clear About Your Personal Bottom Line

I have been a hospital CEO for much of the last twenty years. In the months leading up to a crucial board meeting I recall one hospital had met all its key targets each month for a year.

Two weeks before the meeting they told me there’d been an administrative error — we had offered a cohort of patients dates for surgery out of turn and we would not hit our target for the first time in over a year.

The team was anxious as the regulator would punish us for missing the target. The team asked if I’d agree to re-schedule patients so we’d continue our twelve month run.

After a moment’s thought I realised the answer was clear. We shouldn’t re-schedule — we’d made these patients a promise that we must keep.

We’d face up to what happened knowing we were doing the right thing. In difficult situations there is always a right thing to do.

I’ve learnt whenever you decide, you’re always saying yes to something… and no to something else.

That’s why I think it’s vital to understand your personal bottom line.

3. Have A Personal Credo

  • What are your values?
  • What really matters to you?
  • What are your most important beliefs?

As a leader, what you say and do communicates who you are. People watch leaders carefully because they want to know what kind of leader you are. John C. Maxwell was correct:

People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.

Write what you believe and keep checking to make sure it holds up under pressure.

Here’s an example.

  1. I believe health care organisations should be clinically led and well managed.
  2. I trust people to do the right thing and I will make it easier for this to be the way our organisation works.
  3. I believe that mutual professional respect is a non-negotiable requirement for patient safety.
  4. I commit myself to continuously improving the way my organisation works so it can be as good as possible.
  5. When trouble comes, I will deal with facts as they really are not as I’d like them to be.
  6. I can always do things better and I will always learn from my mistakes.
  7. In my organisation I want discipline thought and disciplined action.
  8. I keep my promises.
  9. I will ask people to use three simple rules to decide whether they are ‘allowed’ to do something:
    — Am I proposing to spend someone’s money without asking them first?
    — Is what I’m proposing to do safe?
    — Will it make us proud?
  10. I will always back people who follow these rules.

You get the idea.

Take action on your credo.

Here’s how.

  1. Spend some time deciding what your own version is and then write it down.
  2. Talk about what matters to you whenever the opportunity arises.
  3. Make sure your actions are consistent with your words.
  4. Make Sure You Focus Your Time, Energy, Attention

4. Be Ruthless About Personal Organisation

A CEO I admired early in my career said to me:

The main reason Directors get fired is that they do not put the resources in place to do the job.

I’m not suggesting you create a feather bed or that you order a suite of Italian designer furniture for your office. What matters is that you work out how to deal with what David Allen ‘stuff’ (emails, paper, phone calls etc).

Talk to your PA, consider appointing a business manager or organise your own personal system, it doesn’t matter how you do it.

Just ensure you have a system that will never break and which you trust.

As a leader, your most important work is to do the job that you and only you can do. Don’t waste your time, energy or attention on anything else.

5. Put in Place Adequate Personal Support

Ever faced any of these situations?

  • Disappointing other members of the team.
  • Facing something very difficult or even frightening.
  • Not knowing which way to go.
  • Doubting yourself.
  • Being confused.
  • Dealing with frustration.
  • Feeling under pressure to deliver.
  • Stepping into the unknown.

Leadership’s sometimes a lonely place. You’re no longer just one of the team: you’re their leader. I suggest you commit to building a network of support that can pull you through the tough times.

Here’s a list of four types of support you can set up.

  • A mentor: someone you respect with whom you can discuss the various challenges you are facing.
  • A coach: who may assist you with gaining a new approach, thinking style, strategy or personal insight.
  • A peer support network: a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Well perhaps not quite, but it is helpful to know that you’re not on your own. A friendly colleague may also have something that might help.
  • Expert facilitation: there will be occasions when you judge the team or a circumstance may need a little help in moving things forward. Remember that it is hard to be a profit in your own land — now and then people might need to hear it from someone else.

Make sure you don’t have to face your biggest tests alone. Other people have been in similar situations and survived.

6. Final Word

You’ve got a big job, maybe one you’ve wanted for a long time. That’s great. What’s next?

Here are three final points to add into your personal manifesto.

  1. Take the job seriously, not yourself.
  2. Make work fun.
  3. Enjoy the privilege of being a leader.

Have you got a personal leadership manifesto?



Adam Cairns

Exploring the intersection between good organisation and creativity |Blog | Digital Garden |