This I Believe

This I Believe

Incomplete and Unordered Thoughts on Leadership

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In the spirit of the famous Edward R. Murrow radio series featuring ordinary Americans sharing the things they believe to be absolutely true, I want to capture some of the ideas that I believe to be true about leading people. To understand how I think about being a leader, you must understand these thoughts and beliefs that form my foundation.

This list isn’t exhaustive, and the items are not in any particular order.

  1. Every problem can be fixed.
  2. Every problem can be fixed, but not every problem should be fixed.
  3. The first step in fixing any problem is honesty pointed inward. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t understand your role in creating or prolonging it.
  4. Some people enjoy catastrophes so much that they’ll amplify any problem into one. Avoid those people.
  5. Done is better than perfect.
  6. Most problems are systems problems, not people problems.
  7. People want to do good, meaningful work. They need the space and conditions to do that, not external motivation. (Study up on Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y management styles.)
  8. Leadership comes with a moral imperative to correct systemic injustices. Leaders cannot be neutral.
  9. Evolution gave us fear to avoid risk, but avoiding risk is the fastest way to kill your product. Don’t be reckless, but lean into risk. Befriend it.
  10. Constructive feedback is rarely comforting or comfortable. It challenges. It provokes. It offends. But, if we can silence the voices in our head that rise in our defense long enough to listen, it makes us better.
  11. “We cannot shut out those we disagree with. That’s not being a leader; that is being an obstacle.” —Soledad O’Brien
  12. “Bring me solutions, not problems” is weak leadership. Sometimes, from where someone sits, it takes all their courage to name a problem. That courage should be honored, not reprimanded. Find a solution together.
  13. No leader is perfect. You will have moments as a leader that you replay in your head repeatedly and wish you could change. Let those moments fuel growth and change, not shame.
  14. Who you surround yourself with changes who you are and how you lead. This is true of individuals and of books, blogs, podcasts, etc. Choose friends wisely.
  15. Sometimes, leadership means keeping uncomfortable confidences. You will be tempted to share what you know with others. Before you share it with them, ask yourself what your motivation is. You’re probably sharing it to make yourself feel better, not to help them.
  16. The world often confuses decisiveness and leadership. Any old fool can catch a tiger by his toe.
  17. An African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Know when to move fast and when to bring people with you.
  18. Much money is made by writing books that proclaim the next epiphany in corporate leadership. Avoid getting swept up in the capitalist wave. Weigh ideas carefully, and adopt them for merit, not popularity.
  19. Every leader should read W. Edwards Deming. His writing is sometimes a slog, but his System of Profound Knowledge is worth the effort. The marriage of systems thinking and psychology is powerful.
  20. Cultivate relationships with people who will call you out on your bullshit. Few are more valuable.
  21. We always have more agency than we believe. Always.
  22. Empathy in leadership is talked about too much and practiced too little.
  23. Sometimes firing someone is the kindest thing you can do for them. That sounds like something leaders say when rationalizing a decision—and sometimes it is just that. But sometimes, firing someone is setting them free from fear of failure so they can pursue a different and better path.
  24. When you have conflict with someone, resist the urge to demonize them. Yes, it’s cruel and inhumane, but it also makes it impossible to find a path forward together.
  25. If you have enemies within your own company, consider that you may be the toxic one. When you struggle against your coworkers, it’s most often your ego or pride, not the company’s best interest, that is at stake.
  26. If you talk yourself into hiring someone, you’ll eventually regret it. There is no fence-sitting when evaluating talent. If they’re not firmly in, they’re out.
  27. If you want the best talent, look at every résumé. You don’t have to give each one a significant amount of time, but nobody is better qualified to judge candidates for a role on your team than you are.
  28. Paradoxically, if you look at every re´sume´ and provide solid feedback to your HR team, they will begin to evaluate candidates like you do, and you won’t have to look at every résume´.
  29. Great HR partners are worth their weight in gold. They’re also as rare to find.
  30. Don’t let your work become your identity. Cultivate your quirky hobbies and interests. Be bigger than your job. (In my experience, those who are bigger than the job tend to be better at the job.)
  31. When it feels difficult or laborious to go back to first principles, it’s probably really important that you do so.
  32. Take the time to explain what you do to kids. If you can explain it to them, you really understand it.
  33. Remember that what is now common knowledge to you was once revolutionary. Leave space in your field for beginners. Don’t gatekeep. (I’m looking at you, user experience.)
  34. Invest in the next generation. Mentoring is excellent, but it doesn’t have to be that elaborate. Sometimes it’s as simple as giving someone a shot at an opportunity for which they may not think they’re ready.
  35. Build up your team members so that you would not hesitate to work for them.
  36. Pay people a fair market rate even if you could hire them for less. No matter what it costs, the loyalty you gain from beating someone’s too-low salary expectations is a bargain.
  37. A company that knows and professes its values is worth a lot. A company that recognizes and celebrates people for living those values is worth more. A company that doesn’t tolerate people violating its values is worth most of all.
  38. “That which gets rewarded gets repeated.” —Andy Stanley
  39. Be consistent in your interview practices. We all have unconscious biases; one of the most effective ways to counter them in hiring is to follow the same process with every candidate.
  40. The most effective way to help someone grow is to coach them actively. Watch them play, then call a huddle and let them know what was good and what could have been better, then send them back out on the field to keep playing. Orange slices help, too.
  41. Know the difference between trying to change a company’s circumstances, behavior, and DNA. Circumstances are relatively easy to change. Behavior is hard. DNA is impossible.
  42. Change management—the ability to position a change and guide people to accept and adopt it—is a leadership skill set that must be learned and practiced.
  43. It’s impossible to overdo change management.
  44. Very few leaders understand change management, and even fewer practice it.
  45. An effective leader gives up the right to decide, opting instead to create the conditions and context that empower others to make decisions that achieve the leader’s goal. If you hold on to every decision, you limit your team and your company.
  46. When you feel overwhelmed, making a list always helps. Moving the worries from your brain to the paper frees up space for more productive thoughts.
  47. You’re a better leader than you think you are.
  48. You have to say no to a lot of good things in order to be able to say yes to a lot of great things.” I encountered this quote on a hand-lettered piece from Sean McCabe, and it’s been visible from my desk ever since. Being a good idea isn’t enough. If we say yes to every good idea, we’ll fail.
  49. How you do something is at least as important as what you do.
  50. Imperfection is beautiful. Sometimes it’s the parts that were broken that make us most valuable.