How To Lead
Credibility is the currency of leadership. If you read nothing else, if you remember nothing else, remember that. It will help you everywhere you go, and it will help you assess other leaders.
If you want to discuss any of this, or if you have a leadership problem you’re chewing on, I’m more than happy to discuss -I’m on Twitter as @wgalyean, we can take it to DMs or a call from there. I’m not some consultant, I’m just a guy who enjoys helping people on this kind of thing.
These are leadership principles that, if followed, will help you succeed as a leader and set the conditions for your leadership to scale throughout a growing organization. I mostly learned these concepts from my time as an officer in the US Army and as a cadet at West Point. They aren’t perfect, but I believe they are nearly universal. I’ve seen this principles work in a variety of environments and degrees of professionalism — kids on a JV sports team, Ranger School students under extreme fatigue, medical providers, grad school students, a founding startup team, and software development teams. I believe that great teams and great leaders follow these concepts, and any team can improve by following or further adhering to them.
I’m far from a perfect leader. Writing out leadership principles carries a certain insinuation that the author is some leadership genius, which is not the case. Again, there’s always a gap between knowing what to do vs actually doing it, but I strive to fulfill as many of these as possible.
My leadership credentials, if you want them: at the age of 26 I commanded a unit of 200 soldiers and later was third in command of a group of 700 soldiers.
Great leaders create great teams. Luck gets a (big) vote in outcomes, but as we all fight to improve what we can control we should fight to improve our teams.. Notably, great teams are not solely about having great individuals (of course you need great individuals), great teams are about how the individuals work together.
Great teams move with increasing effectiveness in the same direction, are resilient to surprises or setbacks, and improve over time. Ideally these teams are *so good* that they can branch out to reproduce even more great teams.
There is a difference between management and leadership. Management is decision making and the handling of resources. Leadership goes beyond management to craft and maintain the interpersonal glue that makes your organization a team.
Unfortunately, in an increasingly complex and uncertain world management can be all-consuming, which both makes execution of proper leadership principles more difficult for the leader *yet the outcomes of those applied principles also become far more valuable*.
The Key: “LRUUDD”
LRUUDD (suggested pronunciation: “El-Rudd”) stands for “Left, Right, Up two levels, Down two levels”.
To me LRUUDD is the y = mx + b of great teams. Almost every behavior of a great team is a point along that line. Almost everything stems from it. Great teams do LRUUDD either consciously or unconsciously, teams that stop being great almost always stop doing LRUUDD.
Ok, great. So what the hell is it?
An individual needs to do not only their own responsibilities, but needs to be aware of the responsibilities of their peers and is also willing and able to pick up the slack for their peer if need be.
How you do it:
- Periodically have people switch roles for a certain period of time, or rotate everyone through certain positions. This might be less efficient in the short term, but it produces long-term compounding gains.
- Ensure peers are talking to each other about how something went, mistakes that were made, and how they can do things better next time. Specifically, ask two people separately if they’re talking to each other to confirm this is happening. If not, play martial counselor and coach them through talking to each other.
Why this works:
In terms of task management this creates redundancy (if someone gets sick, etc) and keeps peers on pace with each other. Far more importantly, this creates a tone of mutual reliance, friendly indebtedness, peers *appreciating* one another’s work, peers helping one another improve, and personal humility. Great things happen when people can laugh about making a mistake, be grateful for their peer helping them, and said peer also realizes that soon the pendulum will swing the other way. Each individual becomes grateful for their peers while also wanting to improve so they won’t have to help you as much the next time.
In contrast to “left/right”, the classic shitty team is one where everyone’s answer is “well I’m doing my job” but they don’t really know what anyone else is doing. That’s never a good situation.
Two Levels Up (“UU”)
How you do it:
- Managers/leaders need to clearly articulate each level’s mission in multiple mediums: in words, verbally, and through drawings if necessary.
- ICs should feel they can ask what the priority is two levels up, and in particular leaders should ensure the IC’s questions will be addressed helpfully, not with anger. Otherwise the ICs will quickly learn to stop asking questions, which is bad.
- Regularly allow subordinates to act in a role one level higher than their current one. The regular leader observes and provides coaching. Again, short-term investment for long-term compounding gain.
Why it works:
- Individual contributors (ICs) genuinely understand how their work contributes to the broader mission
- It forces higher level leaders to have a well thought out, properly articulated mission and reason for the mission.
- When lower level people understand the higher mission they can take initiative that’s properly in-line with the broader mission. This also fosters speed in decision making, action, and outcomes.
- It fosters individual growth: part of “up up” means someone periodically stepping into a role one level higher than their current role. This is similar to the dynamic in “left/right” of people rotating through positions. This is helpful because it both helps everyone advance in exposure and skills in their career while creating redundancy in the chain of command should someone no longer be available.
Two Levels Down (“DD”)
Everyone in the organization, on every level, should understand what’s happening two levels above them and two levels below them.
How you do it:
- Managers/leaders need to go down two levels to check and see if ICs know what’s going on two levels up. If they don’t it isn’t something the IC should be penalized for, rather the leader should try to figure out where the disconnect is.
- Note: “down down” does NOT mean micromanaging! Instead, it means a leader going two levels down to understand what an IC is doing and ensure they are properly resourced. You are doing this properly if the IC feels their work is understood and appreciated, and that their resourcing needs are being addressed.
Why it works:
- Thinking two levels down forces leaders to take careful consideration of resourcing, and helps prevent leaders from being detached from what’s happening on the lower levels of the organization.
- * This feeds into enabling Two Levels Up being easier for lower level people.
- * When done properly this makes lower level people feel more understood and appreciated.
In contrast to “U U D D”, the classic shitty team is one where few people know what the broader purpose is.
This is a good segue into individual behaviors, but when individuals across the organization do their own small maintenance on LRUUDD the entire system slowly improves over time, creating compounding greatness.
Individual Leader Behaviors
Credibility is the currency of leadership. If you have credibility people will listen to and follow you, if you don’t they’ll find ways to subvert you because they don’t believe in you. Think of your credibility like a bank account — every action you take as a leader either increases or decreases your balance of credibility. Thinking about that balance should guide you in your decisions about how to behave or what to do with respect to handling your organization. You should strive to increase your credibility balance because inevitably you will make mistakes that will deduct from it.
All of the following individual leader behaviors come down to various means of sowing credibility.
Be The Example
It might as well be a written law that on a long enough timeline an organization quietly takes on the traits of its leader, for good or bad. The majority of what a leader communicates is in their actions, not in their words.
How To Do It:
- You need to have a small number of people (1–2) who will give you completely naked constructive feedback on your entire demeanor *that you will respect and listen to*. As your organization scales so will the impact of your example, so you need to conduct hygiene on that example.
Why It Works:
- Your people are going to look to you for how to behave. They will emulate you in small ways, and will take most queues from your non-verbal communication (some of which will be subconscious on your part) — the way your tone of voice changes after a question is asked, the way you walk into a room, the way you take a note.
- If you multi-task in meetings, they’ll notice.
- If you’re always late, they’ll notice.
- If you always put your phone away when you’re talking to someone one on one, they’ll notice (in a good way).
Tough, loving honesty
Integrity is the foundation of credibility, and you have to show everyone what integrity means in your organization. As previously stated, your example will speak loudly and you’ll find it echoing around you, and that integrity must be echoing around you.
How To Do It:
- Never fucking lie. If you have something you can’t say, say “I can’t talk about that.”, but make it a rule that you say that as rarely as possible.
- Follow what Ray Dalio says about violations of integrity — you can’t burn someone alive for a white lie, but you need to show that intentional breaches of integrity are a recipe for ruin.
Why It Works:
- People recognize and respect honesty. They hate bullshit and half-truths and can usually smell them from a mile away. Even if the truth is quite harsh people will (eventually) respect that you stepped out of your personal comfort zone to make them fully informed. And when you’re telling someone the truth you don’t have to be interpersonally harsh, as the truth itself is often scathing enough.
- If you lie (or tell half-truths) you will eventually get caught in a web of your own lies and go down in flames (or go bankrupt on credibility).
- Things are moving fast — if you’re hiring awesome people they don’t have time for vagueness or half-truths. Honesty comes back to LRUUDD by enabling your subordinates by giving them the entire story.
Own Failures, Share Success
How To Do It:
- When things go bad take responsibility to upper leadership! If something goes bad it’s because you failed to plan for it, not because an individual failed.
- When things go well praise individuals. Do so genuinely — if you don’t know who is contributing to your team’s success then you need to get to know your team far better.
- Note: this does NOT mean “don’t hold people accountable for their shortcomings”. This means that publicly you hold yourself responsible when the team fails.
- Individual shortcomings should be steadily addressed as they arise. Doing so lessens the surprise of negative feedback to the subordinate, develops the habits of both giving and receiving feedback, and makes solving the shortcomings far more effective.
Why It Works:
- When you own a failure your team will know that part of that failure is their responsibility. If you have credibility they will want to fight to ensure you don’t have to fall on your sword for them again; as a leader you can follow up falling on your sword with “ok, so how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again next time?”
How To Do It:
- You need to monitor each piece (“L/R”, “UU”, “DD”) separately, as each requires specific behaviors. Look at “How To Do It” for each piece, and take note of how your teams are applying those ideas.
- Have regular conversations with subordinates about the discussions they’re having up/down/left/right and how confident they feel about it. In doing so also confirm that messages aren’t becoming muddled as they move through the organization.
- Provide clear examples (through stories or written cases) of good and bad LRUUDD. Ask your people what they consider to be specific indicators.
Why It Works:
- As a leader your job is to provide both the direction of the team and the cohesive glue that makes your organization a team rather than merely a collection of individuals. Always monitoring and refining LRUUDD means you are supervising the overall cohesion and unity across the organization.
- Setting the tone that everyone contributes and owns LRUUDD makes a team self-healing in the face of setbacks, problems, or miscommunication.
Develop Your Subordinates So They Can Replace You
How To Do It:
- Start with small things — pick someone ahead of time to lead a discussion normally led by you. Build towards bigger things — having them brief something to higher level leadership instead of you.
- Explain your job to them: an additional benefit is that in teaching a skill repeatedly over time you learn to better articulate your job and also learn where your own shortcomings are. This will set an example to subordinates that they can then emulate to their subordinates.
Why It Works:
- Everyone wants to advance in their career, this will help them do so.
- They will appreciate how much you’re investing in them.
- As a leader you will come off as NOT insecure in your own job security.
- You’re letting your people shine and blossom.
Some Ideas to Explore Later
- Why is true leadership so scarce? My guess is that so few people have seen a *real* leader in a non-sports setting, so they aren’t sure unsurely sure real leadership looks like (and certainly aren’t able to mimic it).
- You can’t read a book to learn how to ride a bike, and you can’t read a book to learn how to lead people (you’re a failure if you have to say “hold on a moment, everyone” and then go re-read a certain chapter or review your notes). This stuff has to be internalized over years of reflection and practice.
- Why aren’t great teams more common?
- Achievement in schools skews far harder towards individual accomplishment than developing a team. People are taught to succeed on their own. But then they don’t have as much of an experience paying attention to LRUUDD (if any), which contributes to teams falling apart (or never becoming great).
- Most peer leadership in schools is corny and lame. When I think about “leaders” in school I often think about the trope of the ever-chipper class president that everyone quietly puts up with yet overall rolls their eyes at. Few students get the opportunity to be in a leadership position rooted in improving the organization rather than mere popularity; they get conditioned to give hollow speeches rather than take ownership of a failure, nurture LRUUDD in their organization, or call someone out on their bullshit. Maybe a good discussion for the future is how the service academies structure leadership development for cadets, since it stands in contrast to what I just described.
- Keep a pulse on the organization’s LRUUDD, and coach people to improve it. This is like polishing a gorgeous brass bell — you’ve got to do it daily, or it quickly loses its luster.
On getting your ass kissed
Here’s something people under appreciate: your people are going to start kissing your ass, and *unless you’re keen to it you will likely not fully notice it*. So be aware. As your company or team grows your power and social status within the group will rise as well. It won’t be in egregious ways — people won’t start fetching coffee for you — it’ll be in far more dangerous and subtle ways.
People will laugh a little harder at your jokes, they’ll put on a good face about things.
One of the most common pitfalls of a leader is allowing the disconnect to build between what’s happening on the front lines and what’s being perceived on the upper leadership’s level. This happens when you penalize your people for telling you the truth — as a leader that’s one of your greatest sins.
As a leader you can accidentally penalize your people in various ways. You’re penalizing them if you counter a profession of not-ideal information with an attempted reframing or trying to spin it in a better light (Instead, ask what they need and how you can help, or explain what the org’s priorities are so they understand why they aren’t getting the support they’re asking for).
You’re penalizing them if a profession of tough truth is rewarded with a cold audit on what the subordinate has/has not done so far. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to get to the bottom of a problem, it just means that the tone of how you get to the root of it needs to be “let’s figure out the situation so we can support the solution” rather than “well why didn’t you do <thing that feels obvious in retrospect>?” This disconnect between reality and the leader’s perception is so common it’s mundane. Everyone has seen high level leaders who are clueless about the truth of their organization because they’ve built up a cadre of yes-men (and “yes-women”, if you like). This cadre gets built up when a leader skews towards wanting to hear what they prefer to hear rather than the truth. This is another reason why I think Dalio’s Principles is so powerful — by having a culture of radical transparency you help avoid this entire situation. Everyone has examples of the common story is a clueless leader who believes things are fine, while the reality is the situation is deteriorating rapidly, culminating in the real situation getting so bad that it causes a seemly-sudden explosion of problems that overwhelm the organization.
On the example you set
At a certain point (somewhere around 30–40 people, at whatever point where you can no longer sustain a distinct personal relationship with each person in your org) you’ll be leading via reputation
People are going to follow you based off of two things: what you communicate to them and the example you set. When your team is small your example will Matter far less, when your team gets big it will Matter far more.
Most communication is nonverbal, and as a leader your example is your nonverbal communication. People will follow your guidance, but they will always ask themselves “well, what would The Boss want here?” and they will usually execute based off of their own answer to that question. Your example is the answer to that question. Your example will feed your credibility more than anything else.
If you dismiss challenging questions, if you play favorites, if you praise a certain thing over something else, all of that will mirror itself in the behaviors in your org. You will passively cultivate Yes Men if you aren’t careful.
Your example is what will scale through your organization more than anything else.
It seems universal that organizations eventually take on the personality of the person at the top. If they’re lackadaisical or soft on accountability things start slowing down; if they’re insecure and mercurial paranoia will reign. Remember that people behave differently in groups than they do as individuals — like it or not, your personality is a leader is what your org is going to adapt. So you have to ask yourself the question “is the example I set what I want to scale?”
You have to work on your example when your team is small and feedback can be fast, easy, and harmless. That way you’ve polished your example to make it ready for scale when your org really starts growing. The more your team grows the harder it will be to get earnest feedback or to be aware of the third order effects of your example.
On listening to your people
If someone gives you frank and honest feedback you have to follow up with them (even if you aren’t going to take action), either directly or through one of your subordinates. Following up is the difference between them feeling that they are at least heard.
You need to see following up not as an act of etiquette, but as paying it forward for your people continuing to bring big, not-fun-to-discuss issues to you. You’re paying it forward because one day someone is going to bring something potentially disastrous to you, and you’ll catch it early because you’ve been paying it forward and showing your people that talking to you isn’t a fruitless exercise.
If you don’t reward your people via showing some kind of reciprocation (even if it’s an explanation as to why you aren’t following through on what they want) they’ll just stop coming to you. And then you’ll get blindsided by something when winter finally comes.