18 Principles on Leadership and Culture

Over the last 15 years, I have served in the non-profit world and co-founded several for-profit businesses.

I have led hundreds of people in the process, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Here are 18 leadership principles that have transformed how I lead teams:

  1. No One Is Above the Culture

You cannot build a strong culture unless everyone submits to its values and norms. No one gets a free pass because of their position, productivity, or tenure.

People will not respect or follow hypocritical leaders.

2. Leadership is About Serving

Selfish leaders believe that leadership is all about others working hard to help the leader win.

Servant leaders know that leadership is about sacrificing for those you lead to help everyone succeed.

3. Keep short accounts

One simple rule for conflict and frustration: don’t let it fester.

Take the initiative to address conflict openly and directly. Be quick to apologize and forgive.

4. Team Building

Hire for character, aptitude, and drive in that order.

No matter how much drive or talent a person possesses, lack of character is a fatal flaw.

5. Cast Compelling Vision

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

6. View Mistakes as Tuition

Create a culture that views mistakes and failures as the required cost of pursuing excellence. When an initiative goes poorly, use it to stimulate learning and growth instead of finger-pointing and regret.
7. Dispense Grace

People will make mistakes. Often mistakes are going to be frustrating and expensive.

When possible, make every effort to respond with grace. It will strengthen your relationship with that person and positively impact how they lead others in the future.

8. Accelerators and Brake Pads

Every organization needs people who help push it forward (accelerators) to capture opportunities.

It also needs people who slow it down when trying to do too much (brake pads).

Effective teams have a balance of both types of people.

9. One Helpful Question

At the end of every one on one meeting, ask the question, “What can I do to help you?”

This question will help surface areas where the team needs support or resources, and it can also help surface feedback they have for you as a leader.

10. Gather Missionaries, Not Mercenaries

Mercenaries are primarily motivated by the potential for personal gain.

Missionaries strive to make meaning, and they long to be part of a cause bigger than themselves.

Teams built around a shared mission consistently outperform mercenaries.

11. Don’t Strive To Be The Smartest

Leading is not about having the best ideas but discerning who does and empowering them to act.

Steve Jobs said it best:

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

12. Be Strategic with Challenging Feedback

Take time to crystalize what they need to hear and provide concrete examples.

Never share feedback while you are angry.

Intentionally wait for an opportunity when the other person can receive constructive criticism.

13. Encourage Frequently

Affirming others doesn’t cost anything more than our time and intentionality, but its impact is profound.

Intentionally track your ratio of encouragement to constructive criticism. It should be at least 2 to 1.

14. Give Freedom to Fail

We stunt the growth of others when there is a fear of making mistakes.

Mark Twain once observed:

“Good judgment is the result of experience, and experience the result of bad judgment.”

Leaders help others learn how to convert failures into judgment.

15. Culture is Like a Garden

A garden only thrives if everyone pulls the weeds, waters the plants, and fertilizes the soil.

Challenge every team member to be a part of the cultivation process. A healthy culture is the result of an intentional collective effort.

16. Same Song, Different Verse

The best leaders consistently communicate the same core ideas and strategies, but they creatively find new and fresh ways to express those concepts.

People need repetition, but they hate redundancy.

17. Great Leaders Help Create More Leaders

Leadership isn’t being the strongest and most competent person in the organization.

It is taking responsibility to foster an environment where everyone thrives and grows.

18. Lead Yourself First

You cannot impart what you do not possess.

You cannot help lead others to deeper maturity and competence if you haven’t attained it yourself.

Which of these points resonated the most deeply with you? How can you apply one of these principles this week?


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