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

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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!”

But wait—there’s good news. According to Matt Tenney, author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, 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!)

Here, Tenney shares 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. (That’s why Tenney says one of the most common mistakes organizations make is promoting people to leadership positions based on their job performance. Job performance offers little to no insight into whether or not a person will succeed at leading a team to success!)

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,” Tenney asserts, “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.

“We need to listen non-critically to ideas,” he says. “We need to encourage and be forgiving of mistakes. In essence, we need to consistently show people that we truly care about them. SAS CEO Jim Goodnight is a great case study for how compassion fuels innovation. He showed incredible compassion for his people at the onset of the Great Recession by assuring them that no one would lose their job and simply asking that all employees be vigilant with spending. As a result of his care, they felt safe. They continued to disrupt the market with innovations through the recession, setting records for revenues, while most companies in the software industry were struggling to stay alive.”

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,” Tenney explains. “By listening well and treating team members with kindness and respect, leaders develop team members who do the same for customers.

“When leaders focus on developing happy, loyal team members, happy, loyal customers are a natural side effect. A very simple way to put this principle into practice is to frequently communicate with team members about what you as the leader can do to help them be happy both at work and at home. Make an effort to show that all ideas are heard and considered, and try to execute on as many feasible ideas as possible.”

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, Tenney recommends that you make serving the community a priority.

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