Leadership truths I’ve learned over the years

My leadership doctrine

Joseph Gefroh
6 min readDec 8, 2018


Leadership truths I’ve learned over the years

I’ve led, managed, advised, and consulted over a dozen teams in a variety of situations over the course of my career. The people, means, and goals changed from team to team, as did my approach to leading and managing them.

Some of my approaches failed miserably, and some were highly successful. Some worked for one team but not others. Some seemed to not work at first, but after a long period of time the positive effects became evident. Other approaches worked immediately, but the improvements were fleeting.

The drastic differences between the approaches have helped highlight the constants: undercurrents of commonality that all of my effective efforts shared.

I’ve come to identify these constants over the years as principles that underly the effective leadership and management of teams. Further research in the form of papers, books, videos, case studies, observations, and interactions with other leaders and managers have finally given me a vocabulary I could use to distinctly identify these concepts that were discovered through experience.

As Sapir and Whorf theorized, language shapes reality, and I’ve since made these principles the foundation of my leadership and management practices.

First, lead yourself

“You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself…the height of a man’s success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment. …And this law is the expression of eternal justice. He who cannot establish dominion over himself will have no dominion over others.”

- Leonardo Da Vinci

A good leader must have knowledge and mastery over themselves.

To truly lead a team effectively, leaders must be honest and authentic with themselves, understanding their strengths and their weaknesses.

They must hold themselves to an incredibly high, ever-increasing standard of character. To compromise on that personal standard is to lose leadership effectiveness.

They have to be the penultimate example of the very best of their team — an ideal that people can strive to emulate. A failure to live up to that ideal requires an honest introspection and a willingness to admit fault. Leadership requires integrity, discipline, initiative, responsibility, and courage.

Leaders don’t have to be the subject matter experts (although they certainly can be). What I mean is that they have to constantly live up to a certain ideal and demonstrate an indelible strength of character that can be relied on by the team. They must exhibit self-mastery.

Any less than a leader’s best is a disservice to the team, organization, and themselves. Leaders have to earn it every day.

Core values matter

“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”

- Roy Disney

People often dismiss core values, thinking they are just “posters on a wall” or “trite” memes that have no value. Others view them suspiciously, believing them to be “cult-like”.

I can’t blame them — they have every right to these opinions with the many terrible examples of core values gone bad.

Many leaders only pay lip-service to their core values, saying one thing and doing another. Sometimes core values are only reflected by those in the trenches of the organization, with leaders operating by an entirely different set of rules. With hypocrisy like this, it’d be better if the organization didn’t have any stated values at all.

However, truly lived core values create intense alignment, belonging, and engagement. A leader that’s able to use core values effectively unlocks an order of magnitude more effectiveness. They’re able to communicate a clarity that goes beyond mere information pumping. A leader that holds true to authentic core values act as a beacon that tells their team what is expected of them at all times, allowing them to self-direct every action based on these core values.

True core values allows an organization to survive beyond any one individual.

While ways to identify these values, define desired behaviors, and align organizational processes to values is a whole other topic, it’s important to understand that properly defined and demonstrated core values allows everyone in the organization to be aligned and work towards a common goal.

People are people

“Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.”

- Marcus Aurelius

Every organization is a collection of people — living, breathing human beings with hopes, dreams, fears, accomplishments, disappointments, insecurities, wants, needs, and more. Yet, many leaders forget this, treating them as mere worker robots.

Treating people as drones, cogs in the machine, or some other non-individual, non-human resource is a sure-fire way to lose loyalty and commitment. People not only need to feel valued, they need to actually be valued — not just a faceless number or line-item in an expense report.

Promote growth in the people under your care. Take care of them. Provide for their needs. Help them succeed. Talk to them. Cultivate them. Be kind. Be honest.

This doesn’t mean to always be soft — far from it. Sometimes people need a heavy hand for their long-term success, even if that means reprimanding or firing them.

However, never lose sight of the fact that they are human beings.

Build purpose

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

- Victor Frankel

Many organizations out there wander aimlessly, pursuing many things in the hopes of achieving profits, ultimately ending up catching nothing. People become disengaged. Productivity and effectiveness goes down. The organization becomes a shell — not dead but not quite living, either.

Purpose is what ties all of our various individual efforts together into one cohesive, focused impact. When goals are shared across groups and people are held accountable to those goals, it creates intense alignment and collaboration.

As a leader you paint a vision of the end state for your organization. You vividly describe what the world looks like once that goal is accomplished and work with your team on setting sustainable, attainable milestones to achieving that goal. You answer the question “why?”.

With buy-in, teams and individuals hold each other accountable to achieving these goals. Progress can be tracked and measured. An operating rhythm, the tempo, is established. Like a beating heart, the organization springs to life. Progress becomes visible, predictable, and motivating — a virtuous cycle.

This clarity directs efforts towards a singular, common purpose, maximizing effectiveness and unlocking tremendous amounts of potential.

Action required

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”

- Theodore Roosevelt

Good leadership requires decisiveness and action, even in the face of tremendous ambiguity or hardship. Many leaders fail this litmus test, becoming paralyzed by indecision or leaving tough decisions unmade out of fear of the consequences.

Leadership requires risk and the acceptance of the potential for failure. It requires grappling with hard tradeoffs, balancing dichotomies, and living with the effects of poor decisions. Leadership requires action and execution, not just ideas and discussion. To remain in ideation forever is for dreamers. Leaders get it done.

While there’s strategies to help mitigate risk, factor in tradeoffs, and help arrive at a higher quality decision, at the end of the day a leader must be relied on to make a decision and act on it, living with the consequences — good or bad.

Be a servant

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

- Lao Tzu

Many people view leadership as a position of power and authority. They revel being in the spotlight and are quick to take credit for successes. They use leadership as a platform to obtain promotions, respect, and personal gain. Even well-intentioned and otherwise effective leaders can fall into this intoxicating trap.

True leaders shine the spotlight on their team and their achievements, not on themselves. A good leader’s purpose is to accomplish the goal, regardless of who gets the credit or what they personally get out of it.

They often do the unglamorous, unrecognized work that keeps the gears greased and the wheels turning. They look out for their teams and make sure they have what they need.

This kind of servant leadership is far from being a surefire way to get promoted, but that’s not what true leaders do it for. They do it for the team and the mission, not for personal gain. They do it because it needs to be done, and they are happy to give the credit to where it belongs: the team.

Eat last, like true leaders should.

No doctrine remains relevant forever. As the years pass and new challenges arise, I’m sure I’ll be constantly revising my approach to leadership and management as I gain new experience and knowledge.

Perfection is never achieved, but it’s something I’ll never stop striving towards.



Joseph Gefroh

VP of Product and Engineering @ HealthSherpa. Opinions my own. Moved to Substack. https://jgefroh.substack.com/