Your leadership operating system

What is a leadership operating system?

It's the coherent set of core principles that guide you in...

Every decision you make, and

Every action you take.

Just as you might have a spiritual practice, your operating system is your leadership practice.

And the OS matters, not just for its own sake, but for what it gives you. Or for what it takes from you. Your underlying OS is what generates the visible story of your leadership, the story that you live day to day, and the story which means the difference between loving your life, tolerating it, or hating it...


This hurts you and keeps on hurting you.

This grows you and keeps on growing you.

This makes you exponentially more effective,
and it's just the best kind of fun.


When I start working with a leader, I often like to ask her about her operating system. If she tells me she doesn't have one, chances are she's using the sacrificial default.

That's the system that works best when it's unconscious, because...

The more you see it and feel it, the less you can make yourself do it.

When you're following the principles of sacrifice, things can look scattered and chaotic. But oddly enough, there's nothing happenstance about sacrificial leadership. It's a system. A system that can keep a leader locked down for years even though she hates being there.

On the other hand, the sustainable and soaring operating systems are ones that you choose consciously.

In making this choice, you're actually deciding you want to be...

A force to reckon with,

Instead of a burnout.

Upgrading from the sacrificial OS takes serious discipline, but that's how you get to the serious fun of leading.

And when you give yourself the gift of sustaining and soaring, you're also...

Giving your staff the best gift you can give them.

You're giving them a workplace where they can...

Grow and develop,

Play at the top of their game,

Spend their days in an environment free of debilitating dramas,

Make the kind of difference they want to make, and

Feel proud of who they are as a team.

When it comes to operating systems, it turns out that what's good for you is good for your whole organization.

Let me say more about why this is true...

Sacrifice has a way of dragging a leader down into resentment,

Soaring calls forth a leader's natural spirit of generosity.

When a leader is doing really well herself, she wants everybody to do well. It's not like she's going to go soaring and leave everyone else in the sacrificial dust. It just doesn't work like that.

Say you're a soaring leader and you take charge at a sacrificial organization, one of two things will typically happen...

You pull the organization up, or

The organization pulls you down.

Soaring leadership is not a solo thing. You can soar on your own if you're an independent artist, musician, or athlete.


You can't be a soaring leader on your own.

You need a team that's soaring, too, or on their way there. Soaring leadership is social. And has to be. And we want it to be, because that lonely at the top thing is no fun.

Sometimes I get asked about leaders who seem to triumph at the expense of their staff, the ones who work their staff hard then take the gain and glory for themselves.

Leaders who do this can look happy on the surface, but I would never say they're soaring. I've stepped behind the scenes with some of them and it's not a pretty picture.

Imagine exploiting and hurting your staff. Imagine running your organization on fear. Think about the distress and anger you'd be generating—and living with all day every day. What would that do to your soul?

The few times I've worked with such leaders, what I've seen is that when they wake up to what they're really doing, they're immediately in great pain.

So, no, I don't think it's possible for a leader to do great at the expense of his or her staff, not when we ask the deeper questions.

And I definitely don't think it's selfish to put yourself first, because when you do that in the way I'm talking about on this site, you're putting everyone else first at the same time.


On the home page I said that you come first and how-tos come second. What about principles, though? This is an important question because the principles you choose to follow are what make up your operating system.

Where do you find those principles? From mentors, from studying successes of other leaders, from reading books that resonate with you, but perhaps most importantly by...

Listening to what's deepest in your heart.

On the pages I written for each of the three operating systems, I talk about the principles I think go with each one.

And you'll see that...

How-tos are relative, but principles are steadfast.

How-tos are not primary or stand-alone. They depend on other things, like...

Your talents and strengths,

The particular situation you're in,

Who you're talking to in the moment.

But your core principles hold true...

No matter what,

No matter who,

No matter when.

They're constant because they're essential to who you are personally and who you want to be as a leader.

Here's an example. Sacrifice says it's okay to use your staff up just like it says it's okay to use yourself up. By contrast, a key principle of the sustainable and soaring operating systems is...

To be the wind under the wings of your staff.

But you'll enact that principle through different how-tos depending on the person...

Challenging Tema might be how you show her you believe in her.

Comforting Ted might be how you show him that you care about him.

Mentoring Teri might be how you show her how much it matters to you to have her on your team.

Or take another principle...

To give each staff person the exact kind of supervision that they need to be at their best.

Again, people are different...

Nan is achievement-oriented. Give her goals and she loves to go charging after them on her own. What she likes best is when she's completed an assignment that you come celebrate with her and notice that she's done 110%.

Eduardo is big on connection. So you check in with him at the end of every day for two minutes to see how things are going with his work. He's working for you more than for the goal, so that little bit of daily attention keeps him cooking.


OS power
Problems come in families. So instead of trying to solve them one by one, you can pull the rug out from under the bunch of them at the same time by upgrading your OS.

For example, sacrificial problems won't run on the sustainable operating system:

Gossip doesn't continue in a vigorous culture of mission discipline.

Acting out doesn't continue in an environment where the accepted standard is taking responsibility for your own actions and being direct in your communications.

Low productivity won't continue when people know how to work from their strengths and are eager to do it.

Let's look at an example of an upgrade:

Harriet had a long list of problems she was taking on one after the other. But every time she thought she'd solved one problem and turned her back to go after the next one, the first problem blew up again.

In our first meeting she said, "This is driving me crazy. It's like these problems are stuck together in a big glob. I can't make them let go of each other."

Harriet was ready for change: "Whatever it takes!" She got to work upgrading from sacrificing to sustaining. It took her from spring through summer and on into the fall.

Halloween morning she called me to say, "In the process of changing my operating system, all those old problems have disappeared. It's like they all got on a bus together and left town. Very sweet. No more tricks, just treats!"

As a result Harriet's nonprofit became a much happier place and could take on bigger challenges.

And speaking of happier and more productive, there's a lot of emphasis these days on capacity building, but it's important to remember that...

The operating system of an organization is the primary determinant of capacity.

In sacrifice mode, people can be super busy exhausting themselves. But exhaustion is not what makes people productive. It's good to institute capacity strategies like project management and economies of scale, but first let's make sure that we're calling forth the inner capacity of the people doing the work.

And let's make sure that capacity building never means demanding even more sacrifice from an already exhausted staff.

Whenever someone calls me with a problem I always want to take a look at their OS as part of understanding what's going on...

Diana called me because her organization was in trouble. She was about to embark on a ten-month, $10,000 strategic planning process to see if that might fix things.

When I laid out the three operating systems for her, she was shocked at how sacrificial she and her organization were. She decided to change that first. Her Board and staff were glad to follow her lead.

As they shifted into sustainable mode, they could see that their programs were fine and their strategy was fine. It was only their OS that needed to be replaced.

They not only saved a serious chunk of change but also ten months of working hard doing the wrong thing.

And again, this was a win not just for the leader, but for the whole organization.


What's in a name?
If you decide to read through the OS pages, please don't be too quick to slap a label on yourself. That's because even though there's complexity to each of the three operating systems, you are even more complex.

I urge you to take the time to look at your life carefully before you diagnose what operating system you're using.

Sometimes there are surprises...

Aileen thought she was stuck in sacrifice, but not so. She was a masterful leader, it's just that she had a fierce inner critic telling her she was a loser. Once we cleared that out she she found herself soaring.

Bob thought he was soaring because he kept having ecstatic moments. But these were actually sacrificial highs. How could I tell? Because they were consistently followed by crashes. By contrast, soaring highs are accompanied by deep contentment.

Carrie thought she was in sacrifice because she felt burnt out. She had spent 20 years as a leader in her field. She had mastered and more than mastered everything she was doing. She was just bored. She needed something new. In Carrie's case, she needed the challenge of soaring. It wasn't optional, she needed it.

Danny felt disoriented and was worried about feeling that way. He took it as a bad sign. I asked him to tell me what his days were like, in detail. When he was done I listed for him the characteristics of soaring. He immediately saw the match. He was actually in soaring mode, he just didn't know what it was. Once he understood it, he relaxed, settled in, and then started having the time of his life.

One more note about complexity. As you'll see if you read further, I have more than one name for each of the operating systems. Feel free to use whatever name works for you or to make up your own.

Also, you'll see that sacrificing and sustaining are opposites. They are incompatible with each other. They are adversarial.

But premier leading grows naturally out of sustaining, so they are partners. The more you develop mastery, and the more you develop a culture of mission discipline, the more premier leadership becomes possible.


This is the vital sign of your leadership.

This hurts you and keeps on hurting you.

This grows you and keeps on growing you.

This makes you exponentially more effective.

The peak moments of premier leadership


© 2008 Rich Snowdon