The Story of My Operating Principles

Years ago I read two books around the same time, the first by Colin Powell and the second by workflow guru, David Allen.

Back then Powell had 13 leadership principles that he used to guide him. They’ve since grown to 18 and in some cases 24, depending on the book or the speech, but the original 13 were my inspiration:

  1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning!
  2. Get mad and then get over it!
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it!
  4. It can be done!
  5. Be careful whom you choose!
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision!
  7. You can’t make someone else’s decisions. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours!
  8. Check small things!
  9. Share credit!
  10. Remain calm. Be kind!
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding!
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers!
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier!


I printed these out and had them tacked up on my bulletin board. I read them often. It seemed that every time I read them at least one thing on the list was highly relevant to me at that moment in time and served as an anchor for decision making or planning or managing staff.

Sometime later I came across a list online of operating principles David Allen used at his company before his company adopted the Holacracy model. I printed those out as well. Unfortunately, I cannot find that list anywhere, in my files or in the internet. I know that at least one of my operating principles is nearly verbatim from Allen’s list and that others share intent if not language.

When I became Chief of Staff at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in 2005, I decided to create my own list of operating principles. It took longer than I anticipated, months, and I kept making changes for a few years. Other than adjusting the language to reflect working for a nonprofit, a company, or either, the list has essentially been as it is now for over eight years.

It’s important to point out that these principles are aspirational. This is not me reporting on how I work every day. These are the things I strive for every day. I often come up short. I always share this list with people who work for me, and some of them have adopted these as their own, more successfully than me in some cases. I share them often, not to paint a portrait of myself as a leader but to create accountability as a leader.

Many of them are obvious and commonly held and one or two may require some explanation. The difference between audacity and arrogance, for example. When General McClellan rode his horse along the banks of a river contemplating how deep the it might be, and a young member of his staff named Custer road his horse out to the middle of the river, turned and said, “That is how deep it is General,” that was audacity. Fifteen years later, when Custer would make a similar decision instead of contemplating how many Indians were over the hill, that was arrogance.

Communication is the theme throughout and there is an intentional sense of repetition. When I fail to live up to my own expectations relative to my own operating principles, it can always be traced back to communication. I failed to listen closely or communicate clearly or, usually, both.


Mike’s Operating Principles

Honor commitments to such a degree that those to whom promises are made feel highly valued.

Exceed expectations for quality and service.

Demonstrate audacity without arrogance.

Be known for integrity and fostering a culture of accountability.

Bring energy and thoughtfulness to managing the workload.

Practice servant leadership as a manager.

Be an assertive and diplomatic participant in project management and planning the growth of the organization.

Be an example of productivity, efficient teamwork, and sound business practices to all stakeholders.

Engage in ongoing and open communication within the organization and with stakeholders.

Question, learn, and teach, teach, teach.

Recognize that vital relationships and sincere connections are at the heart of every success.

Regularly invite feedback and demonstrate listening.

Initiate change with grace, and accept change gracefully.

Guard fiercely the confidentiality of those we serve and honor that confidentiality at all times, without compromise.




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