Serve to Be Great: 11 Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom

A recent Gallup poll shows that only 30 percent of Americans are actively engaged at work. And honestly, that doesn’t come as a big surprise. From dull, unfulfilling tasks to job-related stress to long hours to grueling commutes to unsatisfactory paychecks, there are many (many!) reasons why people might not enjoy their work. And, of course, there’s the number one reason of all: “I hate my boss!”

If you’re tempted to write that off with a “Get over it; everyone hates their boss,” think again. We’re not talking about a standard “stick it to the man” attitude. According to Gallup’s chairman and CEO, fully 20 percent of American employees are actively disengaged because they have “bosses from hell that make them miserable.” In turn, these employees “roam the halls spreading discontent.” Yikes, right?

Managers can turn this depressing situation around and create the ultimate win-win. By developing both the aspiration and the ability to more effectively serve and care for the people on their teams, managers can become leaders people actually want to follow. (Really!)

When the focus is on serving team members, leaders can create a team culture that people want to be a part of, that produces superior results, and that has a positive impact on society as a whole. When this happens, leaders win too, because they get promoted faster and create the conditions for sustainable, long-term success. Perhaps more important, they actually enjoy going to work each day, and the people on their teams do, too.

Here are 11 tactics to help leaders achieve higher levels of success by consistently serving and inspiring greatness in others:

Focus on developing your influence as a leader. The qualities that make a great leader are quite different from those that make a good employee. An employee’s worth is judged based on how well she carries out the different tasks in her job description. But a leader’s worth is judged based on how well she is able to influence the behaviors of those on her team.

Create a culture of servant leaders. Can you imagine being able to attract the most talented people in your industry, ensure that they’re fully engaged while they’re at work, and feel confident that they’ll stay on your team for the long haul? What would that do for your organization? Clearly, a great workplace culture—which is responsible for all three achievements—is one of the most important competitive advantages you can possess.

The key to creating a highly effective workplace culture that people want to be a part of is to make sure that team members feel cared for and that they’re a part of something meaningful and inspiring. This is accomplished easily when you build a culture of servant leadership. An e-commerce company called Next Jump is a great example of the power of building an organization full of people who are devoted to serving others and serving the greater good.

Increase innovation by being more compassionate. Most leaders are aware of the importance of innovation, but many make the mistake of assuming that creativity and innovation are synonymous. Creativity, which is the ability to generate novel ideas, is not necessary for innovation. Innovation is a function of sticking with and executing on ideas—whether new or old—that don’t conform to the status quo, which results in turning an idea into something tangible, useful, and differentiated. So if you want innovation, Tenney says, you need to create an environment where people feel safe to take risks and stick with ideas that deviate from the norm.

Focus on your most important customer. Organizations that deliver world-class customer service have a few things in common. First, they spend very little money acquiring new customers because they’re able to keep the ones they have and because those customers are constantly referring others. Second, they don’t have to compete on price because their customers are willing to pay more for the excellent service they receive. And perhaps most important, their external customers aren’t their number one priority. The members of their organization are.

The best way to ensure that your customers are consistently well cared for is to treat your team members with the same care you expect them to deliver to the customers.

Get a better ROI on marketing by serving the community. Push marketing—broadcasting unsolicited messages to large numbers of people—is simply no longer an effective way to reach potential customers. In a world where people consume more information in a few hours than our ancestors did in an entire lifetime, our chances of being heard amid the noise are slim. To stand out from the chaos, make serving the community a priority.

Did you know that the apparel company Life is good has yet to spend a dime on traditional advertising? Years ago, they hosted a festival to raise money for youth going through challenging times. Afterward, the company realized that the media and word-of-mouth exposure was more valuable than the ad campaigns they had been considering. Up to that point, their growth curve had been pretty flat. Since then, it’s been almost vertical.

Stop fixating on providing perks and pay more attention to the little things. Perks alone don’t result in a team culture that people want to be a part of. Perks are easily copied and can been seen as a façade. What’s most important is to consistently show team members that you truly care about them—and believe it or not, that doesn’t take a lot of money or effort. Little things like making time for personal interaction, asking more questions, listening more, and showing sincere appreciation for a person’s efforts can go a long way. Honestly, we leaders need to carve out time for personal interaction; actually put it on our calendars. If we don’t, we might find that we’ve gone days, or even weeks, without connecting personally with team members.

Make serving others a habit. Hardwiring servant leadership into your behavior is all about being mindful of seemingly small thoughts, decisions, and actions. For example, each time you’re about to interact with someone, ask yourself, How can I help this person? or, How can I contribute to this person’s happiness? You don’t need to have an immediate answer. Just adopting this attitude changes the dynamic of an interaction in positive ways. Start each day by taking at least 5 or 10 minutes to contemplate the question, What can I do to better serve the people on my team today? motivation for everything that I do.”

Gain power by giving it away. A common misperception among leaders is that they need to be the ones coming up with all of the great ideas or the people making great things happen. The best leaders, though, are the ones who are able to harness the talent and intelligence of the entire team. You can do this by pushing power down to the lowest levels possible.

Inspire your team to greatness. One of the greatest gifts we can offer team members is the gift of inspiration. An important role of a leader is to clarify not only what the team does for the customer, but what the team does to make the world a better place. The leader must also ensure that each team member can see clearly how his or her work contributes to that larger vision and find ways to frequently remind team members of their purpose.

You can also inspire greatness in others by working to develop your character so that you consistently do the right thing, even when the personal costs are very high. When we see someone else living in that way, it touches something deep inside us. We are reminded of who we can be. We are inspired.

Measure the things that really matter. Most of us do a fairly good job of measuring our progress toward quantitative goals. In our personal lives, for instance, we measure progress toward checking items off of our to-do lists, losing weight, or making money. Likewise, large organizations measure things like sales numbers, expenses, and quarterly profits.

Practice mindfulness to become the Ultimate Leader. Mindfulness training—a simple, science-based practice for training attention and developing emotional intelligence—was the foundation of the transformation that I underwent in military prison. Most people want to do a better job of serving and caring for the people around them. Mindfulness training helps us close the gap between intention and action. The practice has been proven to be extremely effective at increasing resilience during stressful situations, which will allow you to live up to your ideals of serving and caring for others even when you’re under intense pressure to hit a goal. The practice also gradually makes kindness, compassion, and a spirit of service your natural response to the people around you.

Being successful as a leader and living a meaningful, enjoyable life are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two actually fuel each other. The very things that make life truly rich are the same things that create and sustain long-term success in both business and in life.

The best news is that it’s all highly trainable. Any one of us can become an extraordinary, highly effective leader who enjoys going to work each day because we know that we’re making our world a better place.