After 37 years working at Chevron, CEO and Chairman John Watson, who took over the helm in 2010, is hanging up his cleats and headed for retirement.

In a moment of transparency while reflecting back on his career journey, he left us with a masterful lesson in leadership. Openly admitting to what he would do differently if he started his career over, Watson told his LinkedIn readers:

During my early years in the company, I was fairly analytical in how I approached most situations. And although that served a purpose, I later realized that you can be much more effective if you recognize the importance of people in business.

The sooner you learn about reading people, listening to others and building relationships, the sooner you will be more effective. So I would have spent a little more time on the people side, a little more time on the relationship side, early in my career.

The ignored people side of the business.

While his quote wasn't earth-shattering, it was important. When you think about conventional management thinking and practices in a dog-eat-dog, transactional business world, not enough leaders spend the time to do what Watson had to learn over his many years at Chevron: Getting results through the people and relationship side of the business.

He mentioned three specific things that, upon closer look at the literature, make up the best of servant-leaders:

  • Learning about reading people
  • Listening to others
  • Building relationships

Lets break these down further.

1. Why learning to read people is important.

You simply can't get good at reading people without developing your self-awareness, which takes a fair degree of emotional intelligence.

Watson writes, "I chose the management track, so I had to get good at evaluating people. Being good at asking the right questions to draw them out so that you can evaluate them properly is very important."

Questions like...

  • What makes my employees think, act, and feel the way they do?
  • How can I get the best out of my employees' talents, gifts, and strengths?
  • What makes them tick? What gets them up in the morning?

Watson exercises his self-awareness to assess leadership potential in others. He said: "It's important to understand which employees make others around them better. I watch for those things in leaders. And I think individuals that are conscious of those characteristics early in their career have a better chance of being successful."

2. Why listening is important.

In all practicality, Watson agrees that reading people won't happen without good listening skills. But it isn't merely listening; it's actively listening with intent and a bias for action.

Great listeners have uncanny ability to listen intuitively to the other person's story, searching conversations for depth, meaning and understanding with the other person's needs in mind. The listening has one overarching theme: how can I help the other person?

Peter Drucker once said, "The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said."

3. Why building relationships is important. 

This means investing time with your most valued employees to learn who they really are. In turn, this produces great collaboration.

But you need to get personal and learn who plays on your team. Let me ask you a question: How well do you know the people that work closest to you? 

Watson said, "Advancing as a manager requires getting good at choosing the right people for jobs." To do that, you have to get to know your people's strengths, what they bring to the table, and develop them into new roles and career paths. And to do that, you have to really get to know your people through personal relationships. That's rarefied air for so many people in management roles.