7 ways to lead by serving

Ask 10 people what “leadership” looks like and you’re likely to get 10 answers.  Ask me, and I’ll tell you to lead by serving. But how do you do that?  Isn’t “leading” all about getting out in front, giving orders, taking command, making the hard decisions, getting dirty, and all that? Well, perhaps that’s part of it, but the most visionary, inspiring, and respected leaders lead by serving. Here’s 7 ways that you can lead by serving.

Do the job – A few weeks ago, I was enjoying my lunch at Chick-Fil-A, when a crowd of people approached the store. The first one in the door was Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A. He entered through the side door, and he opened the door for the person behind him. Then he paused, looked around, and immediately began bussing tables of the customers in the store. He took my tray, and asked if everything was ok and if he could get me anything.  He did the job of a minimum wage, first day employee. Why would the CEO of a billion dollar restaurant do that?!?  Because he’s the leader, and people follow the leader by doing what he does.  So you, as the founder & leader of your company, probably did the job (whatever that job was) from day one.  Unless your startup is one of those magical ones that gets millions in funding over a conversation in a fern bar to make rainbow colored unicorn apps, you’ve done all the jobs in your company. Keep doing them. Not all of them, of course, and not all the time. But when you see something that needs doing, do it. Do it because it needs to be done. You’re the leader. People are watching you. Doing what needs to be done is infectious, and it will catch on. That’s called culture, and it comes from your service to your team, with your team, and for your team.

Attitude – Now that you realize people – mainly your team – are watching you, you know that they are watching you, listening to you, emulating you, and otherwise modeling you and following you. They will do what you do, good or bad. This “following” is a huge opportunity for you to be intentional about your culture, and it starts with your attitude.  [begin mandatory sports analogy] When the captain of any team is having a bad day (shooting, hitting, passing, catching, whatever), it affects the rest of the team. But everybody has bad days, right? Yes, even leaders. Even the best leaders have bad days, but the shooters keep on shooting, passers keep passing, hitters keep hitting no matter what. You may be in pain, tired, sad, angry, weary, troubled…whatever. We cannot control what life throws at us. What we can, and must control is how we react to the curveballs that life throws at us. [end mandatory sports analogy]  Your attitude as a leader, down to how you greet each person you see each day, is being watched and followed by your team. When you’re not in the office, your attitude is in the office. What do you want the company to act like when you’re not physically present?  Serve your team and your customers with your attitude. If it’s good, they’ll eat it up. If your attitude is bad, well, nobody will like it, including your customers.

Teach – You started this thing. You created the vision. You wore all the hats in the early days. You did it all. Now it’s time for you to delegate and lead from the front, so you have to teach people how to do the job. But you can’t teach what you don’t know, right? Right! So you have to know how to do the job…EVERY JOB.  No, that doesn’t mean that if you’re a software engineer you have to learn how to file the company’s income tax return, but you sure had better understand what goes into that tax return. If you’re a sales guy, you don’t need to learn to write java script, but you – again, as the FOUNDER & LEADER – better know why it’s being used on your web site. Then you have to teach everyone you hire what the company does, why it does it, and how it does it. That’s your job, and nobody else’s. Teach your team why you’re here, why they are here, and where you’re going.  When you teach someone to do a job that you have done, you serve them by giving them the mental tools they need to do their job, and do it well.

Share the story – When you start a company, the vision for what the company is and will be is in one place: your head.  The only way for your team to get on board with your vision is for you to share it with them, and often. See, they don’t have the vision. They get the vision. You have it. You created it.  You carry it. You have to share it. Share the war stories that led to the vision. Share your past failures. Share the early ideas that really sucked and how you used those bad points to hone the vision to what it is today. Then share it again, and again, and again. Every new employee that joins your team must hear the vision, so you must be prepared to share it all the time. Set aside time to share it with different groups, because your IT team will see it differently than your sales team who will see it differently than your software team who will see it differently than your customer service team. Share your vision and share it often, to your entire team. Serve your team by serving up the inspiration of your vision.

Tell the Truth – If you were failing at your job or doing something completely wrong, would you want someone to tell you?  If you’re leading a startup, chances are you have some advisors, maybe even a board of directors. Their job is to tell you when you’re sucking wind and to tell you when you’re doing well.  Your job to your team is the same. Yes, if someone is not performing, it’s your job to tell them so they can change.  If you don’t tell them they are doing it wrong, they won’t change and they’ll keep doing it wrong.  For example, you hire a customer service representative. A few weeks later, you’re standing by that person’s desk when they receive an incoming customer phone call, and they answer the phone, “Hello”.  What do you do?  After the phone call is over, you pull them aside, privately, and explain to them that we answer the phone at this company, “Hello, this is Kevin. How can I help you today?”  Maybe this new CSR didn’t get the proper training, in which case you go up the chain of command and see where that ball was dropped. Or maybe this person just wants to do it their way, in which case you correct them politely and professionally, and then you stop by again later to see if they listened.  You do not serve anyone by blowing sunshine when hard truths are required. You serve each individual by telling them the truth, whether they like it or not, and holding them accountable for doing absolutely the best they can do.

Listen – I learned this one from my 11-year-old daughter. OK, you’re right: my wife taught me first, but now I’m able to apply this one to my relationship with my daughter.  Sometimes, people just want to be heard, and that’s enough. God gave us 2 ears and one mouth, so we should use them accordingly. Put down the iPhone, close the computer, and focus.  Look people in the eye, and listen to them. Repeat what they say with, “OK, tell me if I heard you right…”  Acknowledge what people say.  People want their voice to be heard. When you – the leader – hear them, they feel and they are empowered in your organization. You are serving the needs of your team by listening to them. YOU hired them, so they must be pretty smart, right? Listen to them!

Lead – wait, what? Lead by leading? Yes. Sounds repetitive, but the fact is that there are leaders and there are followers. If you’re the founder and leader of your company, you’re a leader.  That means leading, because your team needs to be led. Without leadership, your team will wither and fail. Leadership means all of the above, plus inspiring your team to do the impossible in the good times and the bad. Leadership means making the hard decisions and living with them, good or bad. Leadership means taking responsibility for your decisions and actions, good or bad. Leadership is a gift to you and to your team. They joined a team because they want and need to be led. You may not have realized it when you signed that incorporation paper, but you are a leader. If you lead, your team will follow. You are serving your team members by providing leadership that nobody else can provide.

How are you leading today? How else can you lead by serving?

What do you think?