As I've written in the past, great leadership is about serving others. More specifically, serving your employees and putting them on equal par with customers (and sometimes even ahead of them).

It's this principle that made Vineet Nayar, former CEO of HCL Technologies, so successful. In 2010, he wrote the highly acclaimed Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down. He documented HCL's transformation -- putting employees first and customers second -- that made HCL one of the fastest-growing and profitable global IT services companies in the world.

As crazy as that sounds, it didn't mean handing the employees the "keys to the asylum" and turning managers into pushovers. It meant building a culture of trust with daring transparency and information sharing, and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit across the organization that gave employees the freedom to use their brains, make decisions, and take full ownership of their work.

But I'll be honest, as much as I've been "evangelizing" this approach -- the truest form of leadership that will appeal to human emotions and result in unprecedented business outcomes -- Navar's account (and that of companies like TDIndustries, the Container Store, WD-40 Company, Barry-Wehmiller, and many others) is still far from the norm.

Taking the Higher Road

Walking this higher road of "employees first" leadership can be a very lonely place because it's a mindset few possess. But for those who do, and for those who model the behaviors for their followers, the human and business impact is enormous. If you're serious about taking on that journey, there are some hard lessons to be learned. Here are three to seriously consider.

1. You have to love the people that work for you.

It is no longer taboo to consider this premise: People are naturally wired to experience and feel emotions in the workplace. They no longer want a job; they want a purpose. They don't want to just "put in the hours" and collect a paycheck; they want to contribute and make a difference.

Leaders who place employees ahead of customers understand this premise to the core; they'll create the environment that triggers intrinsic motivation and releases discretionary effort. They inherently love their employees enough to make sure they are cared for and set up for success. In turn, employees respond unequivocally with loyalty and higher performance. This act of corporate unconditional love -- unrestrained, radical, no holds barred kind of love -- begins with a leader who loves his employees well. You can't beat that with a stick.

Best-selling author and speaker Tim Sanders, former chief solutions officer at Yahoo!, wrote succinctly in Fast Company:

The most powerful force in business isn't greed, fear, or even the raw energy of unbridled competition. The most powerful force in business is love. It's what will help your company grow and become stronger. It's what will propel your career forward. It's what will give you a sense of meaning and satisfaction in your work, which will help you do your best work. [italics mine]

2. You have to develop trust.

Nowadays, leaders can't rely on positional authority alone to get things done. Work environments are now flatter, decentralized, dispersed, and virtual.

And yet, more than ever, they are faced with business challenges that call for higher levels of innovation, knowledge, and soft skills.

When we, as leaders, put employees ahead of customers, we gain their trust. When we freely share information, seek their input, and look after their welfare first, they see us as dependable and accountable for our actions; they feel safe in our presence. "Leaders can no longer trust in power; instead they rely on the power of trust," writes Forbes contributor Charles Green.

Trust is the secret weapon of some of the best companies on the planet, including SAS Institute, voted one of Fortune magazine's Best Companies to Work For 20 years in a row (they came in at No. 15 this year). SAS arrived there by developing a culture based on "trust between our employees and the company," said CEO Jim Goodnight.

3. You have to connect with your employees.

While that sounds like another corporate cliche, here's how the most exceptional leaders demonstrate this day-to-day:

  • They show their humanity: These leaders accept that they're not perfect and that they make mistakes. And when they make mistakes, they will admit them. By modeling authenticity, when employees make mistakes, it's safe for them to risk being open enough to say, "Hey, boss, I messed up."

  • They involve others: Such leaders create an environment in which risks are taken, allowing those around them to feel safe to exercise their creativity, communicate their ideas openly, and provide input to major decisions. That's because there's trust there, not fear. It communicates to employees a sense of "Hey, we're all in this together."

  • They have an open-door policy: Credit Karma founder and CEO Kenneth Lin is a good example. He operates with an open-door policy, which he calls a "keystone for good company communication." He says, "I want new employees to feel like this is a mission we're all in together. An open-door policy sets the tone for this. Whenever I'm in my office and available, I encourage anyone to come by and share their thoughts about how they feel Credit Karma is doing." The strategy helps loop him in to what Credit Karma employees are talking about, which increases morale and lets employees know that he's a part of the team.

  • They are teachable: These leaders connect with others by gladly accepting the role of a learner when surrounded by knowledge workers that may know more than they do. There's an upside here: Such leaders will leverage connecting in the role of "learner" -- even seeking out "reverse mentors" -- because they know it will make them better. They know that each person has something important to teach them, so they are willing to ask questions, and are sincerely interested in the answers.


The good news: Every single one of us has leadership and trust issues that could be holding us back from leading well. That doesn't make you or I bad, broken, or inadequate. It just means we are human.

The even better news: Every single one of us can look at our shortcomings and roadblocks as fabulous opportunities to grow as leaders, develop trust, and build skills to influence others for competitive advantage.