The best leaders have a secret. It’s what enables them to outperform the rest. Do you know what it is? It’s probably not what you think.

Certainly, great leaders are women and men of extraordinary vision who rally people to pursue a preferred future. The best leaders do more than cast a compelling vision — they do what Warren Bennis describes as turning intention into reality and sustaining it. They also earn the trust and respect of those they wish to lead. But none of these activities is what sets the best leaders apart from their peers.

As a longtime student and practitioner of leadership, I’m convinced the best secret of great leaders is … they serve. Servant leaders do all the things you’d expect from other great leaders with an added dimension — their motive for leading in the first place. It’s actually a matter of the heart.

Think of leaders you admire greatly. What is it about them that brings their names to mind? It’s probably not their accomplishments, although I’m guessing they have many. It’s likely that the women and men you admire as leaders earned that place in your heart and mind because of their serving spirit. Their effectiveness is ultimately rooted in their character.

In many circles, character has long been identified as an important element in effective leadership. Peter Drucker is credited with the statement “The quality of character doesn’t make the leader, but the absence flaws the entire process.” Make no mistake — character counts!

For those who accept this premise, the debate is ongoing regarding which character traits best determine the success of a leader. While this is not the place to continue that debate, I will say that the most effective leader, the servant leader, has the ability to Think Others First. This is at the heart of great servant leadership.

How can you and I enhance our ability to Think Others First? Here are a few ideas:

Look for ways to serve others — even nonstrategic ways. Serving others changes us as leaders. My experience has been that the more I serve, the more it softens my heart. Serving others changes our focus and enhances our leadership.

Ask yourself this simple question: What would a great servant leader do in this situation? You’ll be surprised how often you’ll know the right thing to do. Use your imagination and conjure up a response. You may find it to be different than what you were thinking instinctively. When this is the case, follow your heart instead of your natural instincts. Not only will your actions change over time, so will your instincts.

Learn people’s names. It amazes me how much knowing someone’s name changes your perspective. Once the nameless has a name, your interaction will immediately take on a new, more human dimension. Try this with the server at a restaurant, your mail carrier, even your employees.

Being a servant leader is not about compromising as a leader, nor is it about being a martyr. It has everything to do with how you think about your role and yourself. My goal as a leader is not to think less of myself, just think of myself less often.

Great leaders serve.

Mark Miller is a business leader, best-selling author and communicator. He is the Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness for Mark Chick-fil-A, where he began his career in 1977. He blogs at GreatLeadersServe.org.

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One Response to “What great leaders know and do”

  1. daringerdes says:

    This is good stuff. I know — I am a Management professor and the director of the MBA program at my university. Keep doing what you are doing.

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