Last week, I attended a pretty conventional conference replete with keynotes, panels, and discussions, all held for an international group in a grand building in Switzerland.

Less conventional was how we ate. Instead of heaving tables of elaborate banquet food served by dozens of anonymous, uniformed waitstaff, here the food was prepared, served and cleaned up by the conference attendees. Pitching in wasn't mandatory but pretty much everyone did contribute to: peel vegetables, cut bread, cook rice, assemble salads, and prepare dessert. I got a couple of buckets of onions to peel and more fennel than I've eaten in a lifetime. And I loved it.

This has been the tradition at Initiatives for Change in Caux for some 50 years. In earlier years, though, one of the veteran attendees told me the table setting was more elaborate, food was brought to your table, and the waitstaff would regularly feature a few Lords, minor royalty, and government officials. The tradition of service is long and treasured.

The service tradition makes a difference. Whether you were serving or being served, everyone counted. As our vegetable team--an Iraqi, an Italian, two South Africans, and I--worked away, we talked in a variety of languages, but absolutely on an equal footing. After 50 pounds of onions, we were definitely a team.

It reminded me of the time in my software company when, up against a tight ship date, those of us who couldn't write code felt helpless. Until someone hit on a bright idea: The executives would order in dinner, dress up in formal attire, and serve the meal in aprons to the development team. It was all we could do but it spoke volumes. Everyone was doing everything they could think of to help everyone else.

There's much talk of so-called servant leadership but it is always action that impresses. Power relationships are changed not by what you say but what you do--and how you do it. If you want to get the best and most from people, you need to engage with them fully. That means seeing them as equals and being as willing to serve them as they are to serve you.