U.S. companies will spend literally billions of dollars annually on leadership development programs to strengthen their high-potential talent. Fact is, there's a drastic leadership shortage in the pipeline across industries, and executives are pushing the panic button.

But if I may step on my soapbox now, I believe the approach is all wrong. We are promoting individual contributors into leadership roles who don't have the capacity to lead, and then demanding that they become leaders overnight when it may not be their natural bent.

Rather than "investing" money in unsustainable classroom training, companies large and small must first identify those with the right people skills to advance their organizations.

Model servant leadership instead

The simple truth is that leadership is about people and relationships. And you can start with the proven fact that great leaders aspire to lead by serving the needs of their people. You don't need expensive formal training to teach this concept, especially since studies have found that adult learners in a lecture setting forget nearly 50 percent of what they learn within two weeks.

As readers familiar with my work know, servant leadership has risen from a relatively obscure and noble leadership ideology stuck in religious worldviews to the very principles of how the most successful companies on the planet operate and profit.

What I have witnessed over the course of nearly 15 years of developing leaders is that the best of them are sincerely more interested in the success of their people than in their own. 

As I said in a recent interview with OfficeVibe (am I allowed to quote myself? This may be a first), "ultimately, a Servant Leader wants to help others thrive, and is happy to put their team's needs before their own. They take the blame and give out the recognition. They care about employees as people all around, and they understand that the best results are produced not through top-down delegation but by building people -- and their skills -- up." 

Diving into three prevalent servant leadership traits

So what will this philosophy in practice at the ground level look like, whether you're a supervisor of three or a CEO of a company? I posit that showcasing these habits on a daily basis will greatly increase both your influence and your tribe.

1. They elevate people through genuine caring.

Great leaders support their people by showing an interest in their people's jobs and career aspirations. They look into the future to create learning and development opportunities. They find out what motivates their best people by getting to know each tribe member's desires that will drive them. This is about emotional engagement.

This means being supportive of employees who are up for promotions or job changes, or going through transitions or difficult circumstances in their personal lives. Remember this quote by John C. Maxwell? "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

When leaders show that they care about their employees as human beings and support their employees' future career choices, it helps employees feel more confident in their position and career path, whether it means moving up or moving on.

2. They leverage empathy to build relationships and drive results.

Recently, global training giant Development Dimensions International (DDI) conducted an assessment of over 15,000 leaders from more than 300 organizations across 20 industries and 18 countries to determine which conversational skills have the greatest impact on overall performance.

The findings, published in DDI's "High-Resolution Leadership" report, pointed to empathy as the most critical driver of overall performance. Specifically, the ability to listen and respond with empathy

In a leader's crucial business conversations, displaying empathy is your secret weapon, but it's not something in which you can "fake it till you make it." Empathic leaders naturally foster strong personal relationships and think about their team members' circumstances; they understand their challenges and frustrations; and they know that those emotions are every bit as real as their own. This helps develop perspective and opens team members to helping one another.

3. They are radically transparent.

Last year, Chip Bergh, chief executive of Levi Strauss, told The New York Times how he practices leadership transparency. Here's Bergh on how he displayed it while managing someone's performance.

I was at Procter & Gamble, which was a promote-from-within company that placed a huge emphasis on the role of the manager to develop their people. In fact, it was part of your performance review.

My first hire was super smart, but he really wasn't performing over time, and I felt pressure to get this guy promoted. I basically carried him and got him promoted. But about four months later, he was gone for performance reasons.

The big lesson for me, and it stuck with me forever, is that you've got to be really transparent and straight with people, and if they're not cutting it, you've got to tell them where they're not cutting it. Hold the bar up high, and if it's not a good fit, call it.

Closing thoughts

Nothing in the practice of servant leadership is possible without first investing time in your most valued employees to learn who they really are -- to understand who plays on your team, what their interests are, and what makes them tick. Let me ask you a look-in-the-mirror question: How well do you know the people who work for you? 

If you're going to advance in your career as a leader, begin to acclimate to the mindset of serving your tribe first (the leading part will naturally follow): Get to know their strengths and what they bring to the table, craft jobs that bring them meaning and purpose, and play to those strengths, gifts, and talents.

Then do everything in your power to develop them for new roles and career paths. When you do, you're creating value all around your organization and ensuring long-term success for you and your employees. 

Published on: Mar 15, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.