Last Updated on October 23, 2022

I’ve led tech teams in early/mid stage startups through to large corporates. Here are five things I’ve learned along the way that have had a big effect on how I think about leadership.

1. Emotions are contagious

Emotions can be “caught” from other people. This may make sense intuitively – maybe you notice you’re drawn to happy people or avoidant of people when they are angry.

I’m surprised by how little-known this is. It’s not some woo-woo hippie thing, it’s just little known and only partly understood.

Emotional intelligence is carried through an organization like electricity through wires. To be more specific, the leader’s mood is quite literally contagious, spreading quickly and inexorably throughout the business.

Primal Leadership, HBR

2. Rewards supporters as well as stars

It’s really easy to recognize the stars. It’s harder to recognize the supporters.

I wrote about this in detail a few years ago using an analogy to basketball, in this post Are You Missing the Most Important Performance Metric?

I like how Alfie Kohn explained this relevant point it in his fascinating book Punished by Rewards:

Assessments of individuals also overlook the extent to which any one person’s performance grows out of an exchange of ideas and resources with colleagues and otherwise reflects the indirect contribution of the larger system.

Finally, even if performance appraisals were adequate to gauge how well people are doing, their effects are usually so destructive that they shouldn’t be used anyway. Not only is the fact of interdependence in the workplace ignored, but people are discouraged from cooperating in the future. (“Why help him when I’m being judged only on my own performance?”)

Punished by Rewards

It’s really important to recognize and foster synergies. This is very similar to recognizing supporters as well as stars, but I think it deserves it’s own mention. Maybe it’s the synergy between a top architect and top programmer – I’d be wary to split them up even if it “made sense” in terms of the org chart. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to grow great team synergy – where the group is greater than the sum of it’s part.

I also subscribe to Patrick Lencioni’s idea:

If you could get all the people in the organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.

Patrick Lencioni

3. Never sacrifice momentum

I learned this the hard way. I realized we were going in the wrong direction with a feature set, and stopped the team and tried to redirect them sharply. The loss of flow had such a big impact. It would have been better to redirect course later more gently. Never sacrifice momentum.

I like how Ben Chestnut of Mailchimp put it:

Never sacrifice momentum. I might know a better path, but if we’ve got a lot of momentum, if everyone’s united and they’re marching together and the path is O.K., just go with the flow. I may eventually nudge them down a new path, but never stop the troops midmarch.

4. Tune your feedback

If you are giving feedback to a smart person, they are going to see the feedback sandwich coming a mile away! Don’t do it.

As I wrote here in Enough of the Shit Sandwich:

Do you know about the so called feedback sandwich?
Or maybe you know it as praise, improvement, praise?
Or simply as sugarcoating?
Whatever you call it, it is really just a shit sandwich!
It’s when we “sandwich” negative feedback in between two (often very vague) compliments.

Enough of the Shit Sandwich

Instead, work on a culture of candor, and maintain a 5:1 magic ratio. Read my whole Enough of the Shit Sandwich post that explains all of this, it’s got some uncommon thoughts on this topic.

5. Write as well as talk

I have strong views about writing and leadership. When I say writing I mean it quite broadly – creating any artifacts – it could be a diagram or a spreadsheet. Creating these assets forces greater precision, creates more permanent knowledge, and creates a higher degree of accountability.

As an idea moves from talking to writing to coding, the precision level increases.

How to Use Writing to Amplify Your Leadership Impact

I wrote a long post about this called How to Use Writing to Amplify Your Leadership Impact that makes my case!

I also wrote about my own writing practice here.

6. Manage, don’t meddle

I used to be a bit of a micromanager. I hope I’ve mostly kicked the habit now.

Andy Grove explained it best in his classic High Output Management:

“Managerial meddling is also an example of negative leverage. …In general, meddling stems from a supervisor exploiting too much superior work knowledge (real or imagined). The negative leverage produced comes from the fact that after being exposed to many such instances, the subordinate will begin to take a much more restricted view of what is expected of him, showing less initiative in solving his own problems and referring them instead to his supervisor.

High Output Management


Some of these thoughts apply more to peace time leadership that war time. Read about that mental model here.

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