In Robert K. Greenleaf's classic 1970 essay, "The Servant as Leader," he recorded his personal observations over the course of 38 years (while employed at AT&T) and confidently determined that the best leaders are "servant leaders."

Since that time, the servant leadership movement has gained steady momentum while being practiced by some of the most profitable and successful companies on the planet.

Yes, that one rare habit to be a better leader this year? It's a tall order because of its counterintuitive nature, and the crux of servant leadership. Are you ready for this?

Help your people grow and perform at their highest possible levels. 

In Greenleaf's studies, he concluded that leaders who put their people ahead of themselves were the most effective. They were effective because they paid attention to their workers and met their needs, like a shepherd tending to this flock. Their desire was to serve employees well and, in turn, have employees serve customers even better. For bottom-line people, this ultimately solidified the business case for it. 

This philosophy of serving others wasn't found on a to-do list. It is what defined leaders at their core, and it was what made their world go around during business hours, five days a week.

Silencing the skeptics.

While skeptics and naysayers continue to proliferate, servant leadership is here to stay as a preferred strategy to engage and retain employees in competitive markets. When you help people to grow and develop, the outcome is a winning trifecta: Knowledge workers find fulfillment, the customer experience is magnified, and the business thrives in rapidly changing economies.

Skeptics in command-and-control power structures miss the many opportunities to shift to a more human workplace, as exemplified by servant-led companies, including:

  • Promoting a learning culture within the organization where people are trained, developed, coached and mentored -- on their current job or for a future job.
  • Ensuring that the workplace keeps people advancing into new career paths, and experiencing new roles and responsibilities.
  • Striving to create a culture of trust, where freedom, autonomy, respect, encouragement, and positive reinforcement are foundational values.
  • Emphasizing and rewarding teams for healthy collaboration and the building of community.
  • Distributing decision-making to the ground level closest to the customer because employees know how to serve them best, if given the opportunity.

Bringing it home.

Kent M. Keith, a renowned servant leadership scholar, author, and speaker whom I often quote for his profound wisdom, said it best:

Growing people and helping them to perform at high levels is a key
strategy for long-term success. When employees grow, their productive capacity increases. When their productive capacity increases, the capacity of the organization increases--it can do things better, or it can do things it was not
able to do before. That means that the organization can better serve its
customers, and is therefore more likely to succeed. It is thus a win for the
employee who grows, the organization that increases its capacity, and the
customer who is better served.