Whether you subscribe to the notion that "everything rises and falls on leadership" or that "culture eats strategy for breakfast" (and, I might add, lunch, dinner, and the midnight snack), no company on the planet can grow without growing leaders first

While the word leadership conveys hundreds of possible scenarios about what a leader is or does, I posit that the best leaders are people-centered; they aspire to lead by serving others first, and everything else follows to exceptional results.

In the words of Robert K. Greenleaf, the man who kicked the servant leadership movement into high gear decades ago, "The servant-leader is servant first ... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead."

Here's my most recent list of what I feel makes a great servant leader and, in turn, how instantly identifiable they become in the eyes of their followers.

1. Transparency 

I recently connected with David Graham, founder and CEO of Code Ninjas. He starts his brainstorming meetings with the hard truth: eliminating any tension with his team by being transparent, and opening every brainstorm by announcing that 90 percent of what his staff is going to say is never going to happen.

"There are no stupid ideas, so just let them flow. You never know what you might say that will inspire someone else, even if your idea was a flop," Graham tells his team.

When an idea strikes a chord, he has four simple questions to ask his employees to determine if it'll get pursued: How is it going to fail? Can we mitigate the failures? Is it in our realm of expertise? And is it on brand?

2. Sharing the decision-making process

Traditionally, an autocratic style of management has been effective in getting results. But the nature of work today, along with its workforce, has changed. Success in management today requires collaboration -- not command. Asking people to take part in deciding the goals that they will be a part of is an essential component to engaging employees.  

3. Listening without distractions

Before you assume you're fit to lead, you have to ask yourself, Am I a good listener? Because if you're going to lead, you need to be.

Recent research published in Harvard Business Review supports evidence that leaders who listen well "are perceived as people leaders, generate more trust, instill higher job satisfaction, and increase their team's creativity."

One reason leaders don't listen more in the workplace is that they think they'll be perceived as weak or without authority. Another reason is that they are simply under time pressure or distracted by other thoughts.

The first step to becoming a better listener is to eliminate the noise -- from your distracted mind and your physical and digital environment. 

4. Creating a friendship culture

Employee burnout is a real threat to the well-being of today's workers. Recent research conducted by Gallup found that 23 percent of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes. That means up to two-thirds of your employees could be experiencing burnout on the job at any one time. 

Leaders are now faced with fostering a healthy environment for happy employees to perform at a high level. One of those leaders is Shawn Riegsecker, CEO and founder of Chicago-based ad tech provider Centro

Riegsecker shared with me the idea of establishing a workplace where friendships are developed for competitive advantage, or, as he puts it, a "culture of professional intimacy."

Sounds soft and fuzzy, but what he's getting at is backed by science. Office friendships boost individual performance and increase lifetime happiness. A recent Gallup study found that women who have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged than women who don't. Look beyond the bottom line to create an office that encourages friendships in and out of the office. 

5. Flexing self-awareness muscles

Improving self-awareness is an emotional journey but can be incredibly rewarding. One of my favorite executives I've featured in my column a few times is Chuck Runyon, the extremely self-aware CEO of the multibillion-dollar Self Esteem Brands, parent company to Anytime Fitness, Waxing the City, and Basecamp Fitness.

"Just as you have to work out consistently to build muscles, you have to actively work on improving your leadership, too," notes Runyon. In a previous column, he shared five steps to becoming more self-aware, which will help in your interactions with employees, colleagues, customers, and investors.

One of those steps is to know your team members on an intimate level in order to build them up, because a business is only as strong as its people.

Runyon shares: "Get in the weeds with them, celebrate their wins, and be there for them if they fail. Encourage and empower them to take risks in order to continue improving and advancing. Provide opportunities for professional development such as conferences, events, and courses for personal growth."