Leadership principles: your most powerful leadership development tool

Olivia Elf
Chief of Staff
Sana's chief of staff Olivia Elf and Jon Lexa Sana's president

Why leadership principles matter

People join Sana to do their life's work. Although these clever minds know what they're doing, a helping hand never hurts. That's why we established our six core leadership principles. Like a toolbox, these principles equip our leaders to build the strongest teams. And become the greatest version of themselves along the way.

These six principles set expectations for our leaders. In every quarterly feedback cycle, we use them as evaluating criteria.

Codifying leadership principles requires self-reflection and projection. We had to pinpoint how we lead today and how we wish to lead tomorrow. After a year of stress-testing these principles, we're sharing them with the world. Along with the secret recipe to develop your own.

Sana's six leadership principles

1. Build psychological safety

Psychological safety is the belief that no one will punish or humiliate you for sharing your thoughts or making mistakes. It's the most critical dynamic to a high-performing team.

In a psychologically-safe team, members dare to reach out for help. They ask "stupid" questions and challenge conventional truths. In this environment, they grow and innovate.

To build psychological safety, you should:

  • Ask open-ended questions. Listen actively and with intention.
  • Be the first person to say that you don't know and the last to express your opinion.
  • Be compassionate and encourage a person who challenges the status quo.
  • Role-model vulnerability. Share the lessons you've learned from your mistakes.

2. Search for global maxima

Doing something good doesn't mean it's the best. Imagine climbing a mountain with your eyes closed. You’ll know when you’ve reached the top because the ground stops ascending. But what if that mountain you’ve just climbed is the smallest mountain in the region? You still have other peaks that would take you even higher. That highest peak is the global maximum.

If you get stuck in the local maximum, you're too busy putting out fires to realize the whole forest is burning. You trade long-term success against short-term wins. You conform to how others define your industry and its problems rather than defining it yourself.

That's why we search for global maxima. To avoid incrementalism.

To search for global maxima, you should:

  • Obsess over non-customers rather than customers.
  • Recognize and praise the team members determined to get to the root of problems, those who ask one more "why."
  • Discuss problems with individuals outside your field. They come from a different perspective and will help you think outside the box.

3. Be present

A leader who's present makes every interaction meaningful. They're in the here and now — focused on what's happening around them rather than what's behind or in front of them.

Presence exists on multiple levels. It starts with something as simple as Slack notifications. Silence them in a meeting and give your colleague your full attention. On a deeper level, it's being aware of your impact on those around you. And being able to sense when a team member needs help.

To be present, you should:

  • Check-in with your team daily. Ask one more question to find out how each person is actually doing.
  • Give yourself time to reset between meetings. Even if it's just 5-10 minutes.
  • Eliminate all distractions when in conversations.
  • Switch on your camera during remote sessions.
Oscar Svärd and Mika Eberstein having a 1 to 1

4. Reduce entropy

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system always increases. Unless external influences affect it, a system will always head towards a state of greater randomness and chaos. Organizations are systems. If nothing acts upon them, they will drift toward disorder.

Reducing entropy in your team is about creating focus. You replace lingering concerns with quick decisions. You make the difficult trade-offs and protect your team from too many emerging tasks.

Some problems need lots of entropy because they are complex. And that's okay. Concentrate on removing entropy wherever it's unnecessary, and you'll create the clarity your team needs to move forward.

To reduce entropy, you should:

  • Avoid involving people in the details of decisions that they aren’t directly affected by.
  • Define your team's cadence, ceremonies, and tools. And stick to them.
  • Use top-down communication. Start with the big picture and follow with its components.
  • Use prioritization frameworks to aid decision-making.

5. Be more interested in learning than in being right

In today's world, striving to be right isn't only unrealistic. It's also exhausting and unproductive.

When we're more interested in learning, we build psychological safety and create better outcomes for everyone. To do that, we leave our egos at the door. We seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm our beliefs. And when we are wrong, we have the integrity to admit it and the courage to change.

To be more interested in learning than in being right, you should:

  • Manage your energy to remain open and curious about new ideas.
  • Let the team share their perspectives before voicing yours.
  • Be prepared to kill your darlings. If the data changes, don't stick to your previous point of view for the sake of winning an argument.

6. Limit the number of details and make every detail perfect

We achieve perfection not when there is nothing more to add but when nothing is left to take away. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said this.

Adding is tempting...just one more click, framework, sentence, metric, message. We think we're helping. But we're just introducing more friction.

Simplifying a process or product takes time and effort. But it's worth it. With every line of code we delete, the codebase becomes easier to maintain. With every sentence we remove, the strategy becomes more understandable and the messaging more powerful.

Limiting details connects closely with our fourth leadership principle. When your team focuses on doing fewer things well, you reduce entropy.

To limit the number of details and make every detail perfect:

  • Simplify your team's objective down to a singular goal. If you could only move one metric, which would it be and why?
  • Embrace the "one in, one out" rule. If you introduce a new task, which existing one will you take away?
  • Think about what you could remove from the product or process to make it more remarkable.

Enable your teams to do their life's work

Leadership principles are powerful. But they only work if they are true to your organization. And every organization is different.

Summer celebrations

Here are the five steps to creating your company's leadership principles:

1. Make the laundry list

Gather all your leaders for a brainstorming session. Let them suggest any and every principle that comes to mind. The list will be long, and that's a good thing.

2. Discuss and vote

Split your leaders into pairs and ask them to go through the list. They should prioritize what they believe will have the greatest impact on the organization. Then regroup and ask each pair to explain their shortlist.

3. Create a suggestion

After the session, it's time to craft your principles and share them with your leaders. In the spirit of reducing entropy, make one person responsible — ideally, the same person who facilitated the session.

4. Explain and educate

Now you've got your principles, you need to clarify them. Why did you choose them? How will your leaders embody them? What are the dos and don’ts? Get all this down, then share your principles company-wide. Include them in onboarding, add them to feedback reviews. Make them part of any rituals that touch upon your ways of working.

5. Revisit and hold each other accountable

Your principles are a living guide, so you should work with them continuously and probe them regularly. Take each principle in turn and host a deep-dive session with your leaders. Or use them when giving kudos to each other. Most importantly, challenge each other to stay true to them.

At Sana, our leadership principles have become our backbone. They have given us a common language and brought our leaders closer together. Best of all, they empower everyone to do their life's work. That's all we could ever ask for.

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