by Matt Tenny, author of “Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom“
We all know the types of people who make great leaders, right? They’re the brilliant, talented, wunderkinds who are poised to change the industry. The persuasive, outgoing schmoozers who get along with just about everyone. The industry veterans who have done it all and seen it all. Or the capable, go-to guys (and gals) who are always first to walk into a room and take charge… Or are they?
All of these types can turn out to be terrible leaders. Sure, each of them might have some success at quickly mobilizing a group. But over time, they tend to become less effective because they’re not able to maximize the achievement of each person in the group. They’re more likely to think that their own ideas are the best and simply expect people to do what they’re told.
If you want a much better predictor of whether or not a person will make a great leader, you should simply ask her why she wants to lead others.
Truly great leaders don’t aspire to lead so that they can have more power, prestige, perks, or money. Great leaders aspire to lead because they want to be of greater service to the greater good. They realize that they can accomplish a lot more with the help of others than they can alone. They apply the spirit of service not only to the mission of the organization, but also to the people on their teams.
Here are nine tactics to help you achieve higher levels of success by consistently serving and inspiring greatness in others.
1. Show them that you care.
You may have heard that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care — and it’s true! Unless your team truly believes that you have their well-being in mind, you won’t be able to develop the kind of influence that leads to long-lasting success. In “Serve to Be Great“, I pointed to Herb Kelleher, founder and former chairman of Southwest Airlines, as a great example of how great leaders develop influence.
Kelleher consistently showed employees how much he cared by doing things like coming in on Thanksgiving Day to help baggage handlers load suitcases onto planes. When he wrote a letter asking employees to find a way to save $5 a day for the second half of a year, he signed it, ‘Love, Herb.’ Employees knew that he meant it. And, as a result of the influence Herb had built, employees saved much more than $5 a day on average, helping Southwest keep their then 30-year streak of profitability going.
You can start emulating Kelleher simply by checking in with your team to see how things are going. Ask if they’re happy and find out why or why not. This will send a clear message that you actually care, especially if you follow up with actions that address any sources of discontent. And don’t forget to frequently measure your own happiness and well-being, too. You’ll bring so much more to the table and be better equipped to serve your team members if you are healthy both physically and emotionally.
2. Create a healthy culture of accountability.
Being a servant leader doesn’t mean that you can’t demand excellence or hold people accountable. In fact, lax standards would do everyone on your team quite a disservice. If you allow mediocrity to be the standard, you’ll find it difficult to attract and retain talented people, and you’ll set each individual up for failure in the future. Take the subjectivity out of goals by making them binary: Either they’re achieved or they’re not — no “kind of” or “partially” allowed.
It is definitely in everyone’s best interests to set high expectations and to let people know that they’ll be held accountable. But once you’ve established standards, you should make serving and caring for team members an equal or even higher priority. By doing so, you’ll earn loyalty and boost motivation, resulting in people who do things not because they have to, but because they want to. I recommend using ‘team’ language by saying things like, ‘How can we work together to achieve this goal?’ and, ‘What do you need from me to help you achieve it?’
3. Ask more and better questions.
Highly effective leaders tend to spend more time asking questions of team members than they do giving orders. But the questions aren’t about micro-management or second-guessing. They’re about soliciting input or feedback and finding ways to be of greater service.
I recommend establishing this practice from day one. When you bring a new person onto the team, have a face-to-face discussion and ask about what goals she has: goals for the team or organization, professional goals in general, and even personal goals. By obtaining and recording this information, you’ll be in an ideal position to serve an employee by helping her achieve her goals. Be sure to check in on a regular basis to see which goals have been achieved, how the rest have evolved, and how you can best help right now.
4. Spend less time talking.
In addition to asking more questions, great leaders also tend to spend less time talking during meetings and more time listening. Whenever possible, leaders make an effort to speak last, speak less than 10 percent of the time, and refrain from offering personal opinions.
By following these three simple rules, you’ll create an environment where people feel safe to speak up and offer ideas. This accomplishes several important leadership objectives. First, you’ll get more input and make the most of the collective intelligence of your team members because you aren’t sending signals about where you personally want things to go. (After all, no one wants to share an idea or opinion the boss won’t like!) Second, because your team will be more involved, they’ll feel more valuable — meaning that you’ll create more engagement. And third, you’ll get more buy-in from team members because they’re more involved in the creation of ideas, goals, and strategies.
5. Connect work to a higher purpose.
Very few people have jobs that are inherently inspiring. There’s nothing particularly sexy about accounting, or customer service, or marketing. However, great leaders are able to help the people they lead see the connection between their (sometimes mundane and frustrating) work and the big picture.
Step One is for you, the leader, to get clear on how your team is helping to improve the lives of customers and making the world a better place in some way. These become the mission and the vision of the team, respectively. Both should be condensed down to a simple sentence or two, and both should be something that people can picture in their mind’s eye. For instance, an effective mission for a team of financial planners would be, ‘We help people to achieve financial peace of mind.’ An inspiring vision would be, ‘A world where the vast majority of people are more kind, generous, and happy because they aren’t worried about their finances.’ Once the mission and vision are clear, help each team member see how their individual work contributes to the cause and remind them of both the mission and the vision as often as possible.
I suggest creating visual reminders of how your team is serving others, like photos and quotes from satisfied customers, or videos of people being positively impacted by their work. The more personal it is the better. The ideal scenario is to invite people who have been positively impacted by the team or organization to come in person and share their stories with the team members.
6. Don’t be just a manager.
Be a mentor who is developing great human beings. Maybe it’s not just your team who’s feeling uninspired. Maybe you are, too. If that’s the case, make it your number one leadership goal to develop great human beings. In other words, don’t just evaluate your performance based on how well the team accomplishes the mission. Work to ensure that if any team member is asked the question, “Did you grow personally and professionally as a result of working with your leader?” the answer would be a resounding, “Yes!” Here are some ideas to help you get started:
• Teach a class every week or two on skills that you’ve developed. Bonus: This sends the message to your team that you are willing to spend an hour of your salary and theirs just to help them grow.
• Create a library of personal and professional development books at the office. You could even start a book club and discuss the topics as a team.
• If you can afford it, establish a budget for bringing in outside trainers as well.
You can take this concept even further by developing high levels of character in yourself and working to help the people on your team to do the same. Can you imagine what it would be like coming to work each day if your number one goal as a leader was to help your team members become people of the highest character? People who were devoted to serving and caring for others, and committed to doing the right thing even when it might cost them or the team in the short term? If you’re wondering where to start, keep in mind that your employees will follow your example — so make sure you’re walking the walk before you start talking the talk. You’ll transform your supervisory position from mundane to fulfilling in no time.
7. Place the needs of the team above your own.
Self-preservation is a basic human instinct. We all want to protect ourselves, our positions, and our futures. The problem is, sometimes that impulse causes leaders to hold back from developing their team members. If they know everything I know and are able to do everything I can do, they might replace me! these leaders think. Well yes — that’s precisely the point!
Great leaders aren’t afraid of being replaced. In fact, they look to replace themselves as soon as possible by helping their team members develop the requisite experience and skills. Why? It’s a win-win. Think about it: If you empower the people you lead, the team will be much more productive and successful. Plus, it’s a clear sign to senior leadership that you yourself are ready for more responsibility and should be in charge of a bigger team.
8. Measure the things that really matter.
Most of us do a fairly good job of measuring our progress toward quantitative goals. In our personal lives, for instance, we measure progress toward checking items off of our to-do lists, losing weight, or making money. Likewise, large organizations measure things like sales numbers, expenses, and quarterly profits.
What we need to do a better job of measuring is who we are and how well we treat each other. When we measure these things, we make a much better effort to improve in them. Remember, it’s who we are and how well we treat each other that drive long-term success. As a leader, I suggest that you seek feedback on how well you live the values of the organization and how well you treat the members of your team. You should also measure those things in your team members. By doing so, you’ll make it clear that they’re important and that people must develop these areas to be considered for a leadership position.
9. Practice mindfulness to become the Ultimate Leader.
Mindfulness training — a simple, science-based practice for training attention and developing emotional intelligence — was the foundation of the transformation that I underwent in military prison. In “Serve to Be Great“, I described how the practice of mindfulness helps leaders become the best they can be.
Most people want to do a better job of serving and caring for the people around them. Mindfulness training helps us close the gap between intention and action. The practice has been proven to be extremely effective at increasing resilience during stressful situations, which will allow you to live up to your ideals of serving and caring for others even when you’re under intense pressure to hit a goal. The practice also gradually makes kindness, compassion, and a spirit of service your natural response to the people around you.
Beginning the practice is very simple. Just pick a simple activity like drinking water and make an effort to let go of thinking and be fully present for that activity. Commit to being mindful each time you drink water for a week. The next week, continue with drinking water and add another activity. After a couple months, you’ll be practicing mindfulness during most of your day. You’ll notice that you’re happier, more resilient to stress, and more present for the people in your life.
When you focus on serving and caring for the people on your team, you’ll earn their loyalty and build a tremendous amount of influence with them—and influence is the essence of leadership. Great leaders are able to influence people’s behaviors in ways that help them achieve higher levels of success and thereby create and sustain high performance teams. There is no better way to build our influence with others than to serve them. People are much more likely to follow us when they know that we truly care about them.
Matt Tenney is the author of “Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom“. He is also an international keynote speaker, a trainer, and a consultant with the prestigious Perth Leadership Institute, whose clients include numerous Fortune 500 companies.