While standing in line at a busy coffee shop on my way to work, someone that knows I coach executives and managers asked one of those "drive by" philosophical questions that can't be answered before ordering a venti flat white.

What's the secret to great management of people? he asked.

Seriously? I thought. My next thought was to give this individual--a manager--something to process that would make him feel really uncomfortable, as it has so many others.

The leadership solution to people-management problems

My response to his question remains largely undesirable for traditional managers. I said, "It's the ability to serve the needs of others before your own."

He nodded with a half-grin, wished me a good day, and left. 

For the better part of a century, people in elevated positions of rank and authority treated workers as cogs in a wheel--utilizing them to perform tedious, repetitive, and sometime dangerous factory work to benefit those at the top of the food chain.

We then entered the information age and globalization but the bosses at the top of the hierarchy lording over people remained, and still do.

You get hired and paid to do what they tell you to do, based on whatever specific functional or technical skill you bring to the workplace in order to serve their needs.

Hmmm, in essence, not much has changed--at least in the management sense and how people in positions of authority view human workers.

The coffee shop answer practiced six different ways

I can see how disappointing my answer was to my acquaintance at the coffee shop. He wanted something to validate his status and rank as a manager in a traditional power structure.

Don't get me wrong; when you serve others' needs ahead of your own, you still exercise power in the form of influence, but not through force or coercion. People will walk through walls for servant leaders with unquestionable loyalty and commitment because their personal and professional needs are being met. That's power!

So how do you "serve" others from a position of strength and power, so that anyone on the outside looking in will never perceive it as doormat leadership? 

1. Give your people freedom and autonomy.

Since some employees in highly-specialized areas typically know more than bosses do about their own areas of specialization, good leaders serve first by allowing them the space to perform. Even Steve Jobs understood his place in the knowledge economy when he famously quipped, "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do." As with Jobs, your best move is to intentionally not be the smartest person in the room. Just get out of the way and let knowledge workers do their thing.

2. Facilitate a learning environment.

A leader serves well by helping to facilitate a learning environment in which employees can learn and develop through their own experimentation and by learning from others. That takes humility, which is a leadership strength of few. But it works.

3. Encourage people to be themselves.

Authenticity starts with leaders modeling the behaviors of honesty, integrity, and self-expression. This is a significant factor as it shows very clearly to employees that not only can they be themselves, but also that the work environment genuinely encourages and welcomes authenticity. 

4. Understand the feelings of others.

Leaders who accept team members as individuals, show understanding and appreciation of their unique perspectives, and allow others to feel that they truly matter will have a clear edge over top-down leader-types. This approach, however, can only happen through demonstrating sincere empathy, compassion, and even forgiveness for others, especially when people make mistakes.

5. Design jobs with meaning and purpose.

A necessary skill of every leader that serves the needs of others first is to set the right goals and expectations for people, and create the kind of work that is fulfilling and has meaning and purpose for each individual contributor.

6. Focus on service instead of control.

To serve the needs of others means to be willing to take responsibility for enrolling your people to serve a common interest, rather than your own self-interest. This is really the crux of servant leadership -- not only to serve those entrusted to your leadership but also to align everyone to serve a bold mission and larger organizational goal with purpose.