When you're in the presence of great leaders, you just know it. Their energy is infectious, they inspire with ease, and when they speak about their mission, you want to get involved. Great leadership, however, is not necessarily something you are born with--it's honed over years of experience and fine-tuned by emotional awareness, refined skill, clarity of purpose, and vulnerability.

I was reminded of these qualities after attending a conference in San Diego earlier this month. The event was run by a movement called conscious capitalism, founded by Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey and Babson College professor Raj Sisodia as a way to help organizations be more human and conscious about their impact in the world. The all-star lineup included great leaders like Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb, JetBlue co-founder and chief people officer Ann Rhoades, and Motley Fool co-CEO Tom Gardner.

Throughout their presentations, this group addressed--and demonstrated--several key themes of leadership. So if you're looking to emulate their success, keep some of the following in mind:

1. Treat employees like family. This is not easy. When you think about it, treating your employees like family requires trust--doing anything to insure that their emotional and professional needs are being met. This type of care requires time, a willingness to invest financially in your people, and an ongoing commitment to evolving how that's executed. All of these speakers spoke specifically about how they saw their employees as humans, not resources. This is key.

2. Be humble. I met and spoke with many of these leaders and their employees. They all demonstrated humble behavior.  One specific example was from Sisodia, who is a beacon for humbleness. Despite being the co-founder and co-author of the book "Conscious Capitalism" and speaking to hundreds of organizations about the principles of the movement annually, he routinely says he has done nothing and is in awe of the people that have been working along him for years.

3. Walk your talk--all the time. Saying one thing and doing another is a common trap that leaders find themselves in. Most of the time, it's not intentional. They want to do what they say, but other priorities take over and their words become empty promises. In order to be a great leader, you can't do this. When you say you're focused on people, your behavior and your priorities need to mirror that verbal commitment.

4. Have a clear mission and purpose. Great leaders aren't driven by financial gain. They do what they do because they have a higher calling. They also regularly share this, which is why great leaders are easy to follow. You know what they stand for and you can connect with their story. Consider Robb, who lives and breathes the mission of "Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet." One way he does this is to visit up to 100 stores a year and spend three hours in each, specifically shaking the hands and looking into the eyes of each person in those stores. He says this is how he knows if the store is living the mission and purpose.

5. Be insatiably curious. Great leaders are non-stop learners and they know they don't have all the answers. Their curiosity is a byproduct of their humbleness. They don't think of themselves as great leaders because they are constantly refining and evolving their thinking and how they approach problem solving. There is no destination--and they want to learn from people along the way.

Published on: Apr 23, 2014
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