How Human-Centered Leaders Follow Principles that Matter

Many think of leadership and power as a peanut butter and chocolate combination. They just go together. There is power in being a leader yet too often leaders put the objective of power above doing the right thing and engaging people in a respectful, thoughtful way. Self-interest overrides sound leadership principles.

When principle is placed first, however, our leadership changes dramatically. Leading on principle first solves many problems and produces clarity in how to build organizational cultures.

The Buffer Example

Several weeks ago I received an email from the team at Buffer. I am a customer. The email subject was “Introducing Transparent Pricing.” Here is an excerpt:

“Transparency has been a foundational principle of the way we do things here at Buffer. We share the details of our salaries, our revenue, our fundraising, and more. Today, I’m so excited to extend this transparency directly to you, our beloved Buffer customer!”

Leading on principle first solves many problems and produces clarity in how to build organizational cultures.

As I clicked through and read more, I was amazed. They highlighted where money was spent and identified monthly salaries of team members. Much more about the organization was revealed in their blog.

What was clear is that transparency was a galvanizing leadership principle. Everything done by the company is centered on being transparent. And transparency is expanding as the company grows, not the other way around (as would be expected).

I have never met Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer, but I would like to. Joel represents someone who is challenging leaders to raise the standard in the way they lead. He is not the first, although he is likely among a minority of leaders who are leading on clear principles.

Why Leading on Principle Matters

People often talk about leadership principles. They have a list off six to eight principles they try to lead by. Those principles are likely in a handbook, pinned to a wall, or just part of a quarterly speech. A list of principles is just that: A list.

When a principle that matters is front-and-center and used in every important decision made, the principle is a leading one. The principle becomes the guiding light and the test to ensure the decisions square with the principle. The principle is activated within the leader. I may sound repetitive but this is important. Rather than being talked about, the principle is used often and others see the impact of the principle in how work is done and how everyone acts.

Let’s be specific. Highlighted below are three reasons why leading on principle matters.

1. Brings Clarity to Discussions and Decisions

When people are wrestling with important decisions, the test of whether or not the right decision is being made is how it stacks up against a key principle. In Buffer’s case, whether or not to withhold certain performance news would be a short conversation. Doing so would violate their principle of transparency.

Clarity brings speed to some decisions. Clarity will also bring meaningful conversations, ensuring the principle remains unvarnished and can thrive through various business and leadership challenges.

2. Creates and Sustains Organizational Culture

When starting a company, getting the initial hiring right is crucial. Hiring the right people delivers a foundation in which the company can continue to succeed in their mission. With a guiding principle, the right questions to ask an interviewee is easier. With a guiding principle, the screening process is easier. Self-screening may happen as well.

In the Buffer example, when a potential hire reads about their transparent culture and how salaries are known by the world, they may elect to not apply. This culture may not fit everyone and that is okay. In fact, it is better this way for many reasons. From costs of early departures to disruptive behaviors, avoiding these costs and hurdles means a lot to any organization – young or old.

Clarity will also bring meaningful conversations, ensuring the principle remains unvarnished and can thrive through various business and leadership challenges.

3. Serves as a Way to Galvanize Organizational Purpose

Uncertainty creates wasted energy. There is enough uncertainty in market conditions without adding to it with internal wishy-washiness. Let’s be real honest. Too many organizations seem flimsy in what their real purpose is. Instead of focusing on a higher mission or purpose, many competing individual desires take over. Uncertainty in purpose reigns and, worse, people get worn out and the organizational culture becomes disoriented.

When principles are present and demonstrated with consistent messages and actions, people feel joy in their work. The joy in the work happens because purpose and principle usually go hand-in-hand. When strong principles guide leadership, purpose is present, too.

Abdicate Power, Elevate Principle

Principles elevate leaders to act in an unselfish way and focus on a higher purpose of their organization. Purpose floods in every doorway and hallway, and you can see the determination and joy in each person. People want to do work where what they do matters and serves some greater good. Principles serve as the motivating core to make this happen.

The time is now to lead on principle, empowering a higher standard of leadership and engagement. The power of principle will inspire the sweet mix of purpose, profit, and people.

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Jon Mertz is a vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. He was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business by Trust Across America in 2014 and 2015 and highlighted as a “Leader to Watch” in 2015 by the American Management Association. Jon recently published “Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders.” Jon’s background consists of an MBA from The University of Texas at Austin and working for companies like Deloitte, IBM, and BMC Software. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the leadership gap between two generations.

  • CheryGegelman

    Jon – Thank you for sharing this! I use buffer but didn’t click through. Their story is amazing and your points in this post are spot on. Thank you for sharing!

    • Appreciate it, Chery. The leadership at Buffer is one to watch. They are doing many good things and are showing the power of principle. Thanks! Jon

  • Jon – Thank you for this fabulous piece. I’ve already reread it 3 separate times and plan to continue to do so on a regular basis. It’s such an important MINDSET that we should all inculcate. Our work, and our lives will be all the better for it. Best, Dara

    • Dara,

      Thank you (belatedly)! This is such an important mindset to adopt and the leadership at Buffer are setting a great example. Thank you!


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