Leadership Principles

Never doubt the capacity of the people you lead to accomplish whatever you dream for them. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t say, “I have a dream, and I hope you’ll be up for it.” - Benjamin Zander

Principles for Operating an Effective Engineering Team

Principles for Managing People Effectively

Principles for Hiring Engineers

“Look for people who have lots of great questions. Smart people are the ones who ask the most thoughtful questions, as opposed to thinking they have all the answers. Great questions are a much better indicator of future success than great answers.” - Ray Dalio

  • Hire people who are Hungry, Humble, and Emotionally Intelligent
  • Hire for strengths, not for lack of weaknesses. (See: Gallup CliftonStrengths How to create a strengths-based company culture)
  • Hire people who put the team’s success above their individual success.
  • Practice disconfirmation. Whether you want to hire someone or pass, look for evidence that you’re wrong.
  • Only hire people who bring up the average for their role and level.
  • Hire for skills that are not easily taught. If someone has demonstrated they can master one programming framework, it is likely they can master another. Unless you truly need an expert in that framework, it should not be a reason to disqualify them.
  • Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

    “People can change, but the best predictor of future actions is someone’s past actions.” - John Kotter

Principles for Building Effective Teams

  • If you have a premium team, pay for premium tools. Don’t make the mistake of spending dollars in labor to save pennies in tools. (See: Scarcity mindset.)
  • Building great teams at work is about assembling the right combination of people and skills, much like sports teams are comprised of different roles.
  • Pair people with complementary skills. Understand that people have different strengths and that the whole can be more than the sum of the parts; shore up weaknesses, but don’t try to make everyone be the same. Instead, build teams by combining people with different strengths.
  • Pair action-oriented people with methodical people to get the best of both. Be careful to do this effectively or it will just frustrate both people.
  • Agreeable, conscientious people are easy to manage. They are intrinsically motivated and eager to please others. They will do more than their fair share of the work. Value them and protect them, and they will stay with you for the long haul. Be careful not to let these people be taken advantage of by their more demanding counterparts. Don’t let them burn themselves out.
  • Disagreeable people challenge the organization to improve. You need some of these people to get better as an organization. A team full of only agreeable people won’t improve as fast as a team with a couple of disagreeable people. But as a manager, you cannot let the disagreeable people run over the agreeable people. Quotes:

    “If you and your partner always agree, one of you is unnecessary.” – Unknown

  • Hire some assertive people. Assertive people move things forward. They’re decisive when the team is spinning in circles. But some people are unaware they’re being aggressive rather than assertive. Assertive people say what needs to be said. And they’re often willing to say it when others are not. Good assertiveness looks like Being Bold. Bad assertiveness looks like being un-Inclusive.
  • Recognize the difference between assertive vs aggressive. Assertive people challenge the team to improve; aggressive people sacrifice others to advance their goals.
  • Teams are the minimum unit of delivery. Not the individual. Teams—not individuals—are responsible for delivering features. Teams—not individuals—are responsible for quality. Estimates should be based on the team’s capacity, not an individual’s capacity.
  • Avoid single points of failure. This applies to people as well as systems. The magic number is three. That way, when the primary goes out, you still have redundancy. The worst time to train a backup is when the new primary is already overwhelmed with their new responsibilities. Train your backup’s backup before you need them.
  • Every line of code should have a clear owner; code that is owned by everyone is not owned by anyone. Code should only be owned by teams, not individuals.

Principles for Getting Things Done

“As a leader, your job is to flip the highest order bit.” —Unknown

“A goal without without an active project is a dream.” - Tiago Forte

“A project without a goal is a hobby.” - Tiago Forte

  • Done is better than perfect.
  • Discipline beats motivation. You can’t rely on motivation; discipline will transform your dreams into reality.
  • Eat the Frog. Prioritize your must-dos above all of your like-to-dos
  • Good execution matters more than good ideas. Note: This is inconsistent with “Done is better than perfect”, and I think this version is wrong. A good idea executed poorly is better than a bad idea executed perfectly. What I meant to say here is that without execution, a good idea has little utility.


  • Generally, praise in public and criticize in private.
  • Criticize egregious behavior in public. Being seen to tolerate bad behavior can give the impression that behavior is ok.


  • Create a meritocracy.
  • Pay people at the top of their personal market (the Netflix approach). See Create a meritocracy
  • Pay people not addresses.
  • Pay people for the value they provide, not their cost of living or the cost of labor in their market
  • Don’t stack rank your people if you want them to truly put their teammates first. See Align incentives.

People & Relationships

“As leaders, we’re giving out grades in every encounter we have with people. We can choose to give out grades as an expectation to live up to… or we can offer grades as a possibility to live into. The second approach is much more powerful.” - Benjamin Zander

“When you have great relationships, any process works. When you don’t, no process works.” - Will Larson (See: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.)

Decision Making

  • Don’t push information up to those with the authority; push authority down to those with the information.
  • Your role as the leader is to encourage your people to think for themselves — not to enact a set of rules for them.
  • Decisions we make today tend to stick around and impact us for quite a long time. People tend to continue doing what they’re doing simply because they’re doing it, and it takes a lot of force to change the way people do things.
  • Weigh the value of additional information against the cost of delaying
  • When there are no good options, choose the least bad option.
  • In groups, make it clear who gets to make the decision. It can be the manager, or it can be delegated to someone on the team.
  • People reason with their minds but make decisions with their gut. Learn to trust your gut by making decisions with it and learning from them. Next time you’re faced with the same question, you’ll know whether you can trust it again and what you learned from the last time. It’s ok to make bad decisions as long as you learn from them. Ideally, you want to make them when the stakes are low.
  • Recognize that even if you are “in charge,” you may not be the person who is best equipped to make the decision.
  • Don’t overlook the cost of indecision. Sometimes failing to act is acting, and failing to decide is deciding.
  • Analysis paralysis is an obsession with making the best decision. Recognize that you cannot go through life only making optimal decisions, and you’ll burn yourself out if you try.
  • Action creates clarity. Rather than trying to see 10 steps ahead, focus on taking step one and then looking for step two.
  • If you go to the effort to make a decision, be sure to write it down.
  • People are indecisive because they’re scared of making a mistake.

Diversity & Inclusion

“If you’re under-represented, getting promoted is diversity work. Being visibly successful is the most powerful diversity work she can do. She can be the representation someone needs. She can be in a much better position for mentorship and sponsorship.” - Tanya Reilly

Principles for Writing

“The most important thing you can do with an idea: get it out of your head.” - Jack Dorsey

  • Writing forces you to clarify your thoughts. Writing exposes the weaknesses in your arguments. If you can’t articulate your ideas, you don’t fully understand them.
  • Effective teams document their core values, principles, and processes so they are widely understood and refined
  • Share your ideas early, get feedback, and iterate. See Just start.
  • Seek input from people who are smarter than you, dumber than you, and have different perspectives.
  • Ideas should be shared freely so they can be improved; execution is your competitive advantage.

On Delegating

  • Delegate as much as possible within the constraints of meeting your deliverables.
  • Doing what you’re best at hurts the team. Teach them how to do it. (See: Leadership is not doing)
  • Hire the best people possible and get out of their way.

On Disagreement

  • Embrace constructive disagreement. There’s little to be learned when everyone agrees. Hire the smartest people you can find, assemble diverse perspectives, and look for areas of disagreement. This is where the magic happens. This is where new solutions are born. This is where competitive advantage can be extracted.
  • Learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.
  • Never debate someone when you’re right. In a debate, both sides are dug in, defending their existing views and are unlikely to learn efficiently. In a conversation, both sides are seeking to understand what they’re missing. Don’t debate close-minded people. It’s not worth the effort, and open-minded people won’t make you.
  • Recognize the difference between being assertive and being aggressive.
  • Assume good intentions

On Boldness

  • Leadership requires courage.

“Courage is the main quality of leadership.” - Walt Disney

“All successful people have some combination of three traits: being naive enough to walk into a hard thing without realizing how hard it is (or else they would never try), being conscientious enough to not quit when they realize just how hard it is, and the intelligence to eventually figure it out in time.” - Engineering Director at Google

“It’s the strong swimmers who drown.”

On Reading

TODO: Move reading-related quotes to the Book Summaries intro:

“My policy [is] reading every annual report in sight that can further my knowledge about anything.” -Warren Buffett

“I read and read and read. I probably read 5 to 6 hours per day. I read five daily newspapers, I read a fair number of magazines, I read 10k’s, I read annual reports, and I read a lot of other things too. I’ve always enjoyed reading. I love reading biographies for example.” – Warren Buffett

Making Decisions

  • Always sleep on it before making a large decision. Emotions can be manipulated. Don’t let yourself get carried away. If it’s the right decision, it will still be the right decision tomorrow. You may be less excited, but you’ll be more sure.
  • Ask yourself: “Is the Best Case scenario worth risking the worst case scenario?”

Other Uncategorized Thoughts

  • Avoid righteous indignation and embrace humility and curiosity. Note: These can be learned. Also, see The Righteous Mind.
  • It’s not enough to know what works, you need to know why.
  • Recognize the things in your circle of influence vs circle of concern

Common sense ideas just mean ideas that haven’t been challenged or proven to be true. They’re the unreflective opinions of ordinary people. Should leaders be unreflective? Of course not. When you ask someone to use “common sense” what you really mean is do what I would have done if you had the same experience and perspective as I do — which of course no one else does. Everyone always does what makes sense given their experience. That doesn’t remotely make it the right thing to do. Common sense accepts the obvious. Science questions the obvious. Common sense says of course. Science asks but why? Common sense is vague, scientific knowledge is precise. Common sense is not consistent, scientific knowledge is. Common sense is gained through uncontrolled experience, scientific knowledge through controlled experiments. Keeping good records is the best way to learn from your successes and failures. Not knowing why things get better or worse is a problem. If it gets better for no reason later it will get worse for no reason. And you won’t know why. You won’t know how to reproduce the good results or prevent the bad. It’s not enough to know what works, you need to know why. - Bringing Out the Best in People

“The purpose of negotiation is not always to reach agreement… The purpose of negotiation is to explore whether you can satisfy your interests better through an agreement than you could by pursuing your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). Your BATNA is your walkaway alternative. It’s your best course of action for satisfying your interests without the other’s agreement.” - William Ury (?)

“The vast majority of our learning happens on the job.” - Tanya Reilly “Virtuous cycles” – this is the word I was looking for with the correlation stuff.

  • You only get better when you invest effort.

    “I’m good at everything I put effort into.” - Polina Giralt.

  • Trust your gut, and look for bias. Your instincts are based in your experiences, and experienced people have highly refined instincts. Learn when to trust your gut and when not to. Deveop a curiosity about why you have strong instincts. Critique your instincts. Look for bias. Don’t follow it blindly. By doing so, your intuition will become even sharper and more accurate.
    • and attempt to reverse engineer it. If your gut says not to make a hire, try to figure out why. You may make a few mistakes learning to trust your gut, but it’s important to develop this ability. -> Learn when to trust your gut and when not to trust your gut (aka instinct, intuition).
  • Develop a curiosity about your intuitions. Your intuitions are based in your experiences. Learn to reduce them to writing (as principles) so you can test and refine them. Formalize your thinking and share it to give others the benefit of your insights.

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Copyright © 2023 Richard Morgan.