Leadership Blog

Stop Dictating Edicts and Start Leading From the Front Line


Businesses may not be true democracies, but they don’t have to become dictatorships. In fact, leaders who lean on the input of their employees outperform those who maintain lone wolf personas.

A workplace centered on respect ensures a constant flow of innovative ideas and reduced staff turnover. The secret is effective collaboration — a critical component in today’s working world. If your business is a wheel that must constantly move forward, think of the CEO as the hub and the employees as the spokes. The hub holds everything together, but the wheel would fall apart without each spoke doing its part.

And yet, building a workplace of trusting colleagues often requires leaders to change their mindsets — something I have personally experienced.

Although I am a CEO now, I did not begin there. I started at the bottom, without a title or significant managerial experience. Consequently, I learned to lead by testing hypotheses and sticking with the winners. Remember: I was trying to motivate people to do their best work, but I had no authority.

Slowly, I realized the power of asking for help. Leaders are not omniscient; the solid ones delegate and remain open to change. They also find strength in guidance from others. It’s not weakness to know what you don’t know.

Changing From ‘I’ to ‘We’

Over time, I have come to practice what many people refer to as servant leadership. Servant-leaders remain at the front rather than the top, sharing responsibilities and putting the team’s needs at the forefront. This approach forges a sense of community and fosters tremendous collaborative ventures, resulting in a host of benefits.

One of the initial pros of creating a work culture where everyone has a voice is a constant flow of new, better ideas. Employees who feel heard and part of a bigger picture tend to pipe up when they have brainstorms, even if they aren’t prompted. Considering Gallup reports that engagement is lacking for 71 percent of millennial workers, this level of participation is a valuable asset. Don’t lay the blame squarely on millennials, though, as 70 percent of these young workers say they feel disengaged because of poor leadership.

Consequently, another positive outcome to leading from a platform of modified democracy is reduced staff turnover. Whether they have been promoted from within or brought from the outside to breathe fresh life into old processes, valued workers want to dig their heels into the soil. After all, why wander when you feel at home?

You don’t have to be best friends with your employees to engage with them in a meaningful way that improves your connection as well as your company’s work environment. You just have to put some measures in place to instill a culture of democratic give-and-take instead of endless directives.

How to Practice Servant Leadership

1. Give employees credit where credit is due.

Did workers have amazing ideas that ended up saving the company money, streamlining systems, helping customers, or something else magnificent? Praise them — possibly in front of their peers.

Never take credit for innovative thinking that didn’t come from your brain. Otherwise, you risk losing out because employees will stop contributing. Of course, you must be judicious: Don’t advertise every word an employee says. Mutual respect is built over time and in an environment free of micromanagement. Be sure that people feel valued by entrusting them with their jobs and singing their praises when appropriate. 

2. Stay in touch with employees.

As your business grows, you might find it challenging to have personal relationships with everyone on the payroll. Nevertheless, do your best to communicate with as many contributors as you can on a regular basis.

The Gallup study I mentioned earlier revealed only about one-fifth of Millennials sit down with their supervisors once a week; even fewer feel that the feedback they get from those supervisors makes a difference. Buck this trend by scheduling formal meetings and making yourself available for impromptu discussions. You’ll foster civility and a sense of camaraderie, which will help you get through the inevitable tough times. 

3. Practice listening skills.

Have you ever spoken to someone and knew they didn't hear a word you said? Their eyes were wide and focused, but their brain was elsewhere. Sound familiar? Leaders have plenty on their minds, but that’s no excuse to tune people out.

If you have difficulty turning off all those nagging thoughts, practice paying attention. Ask someone close to you to help you improve your listening skills by telling you something important. Once this person has finished talking, parrot what they said without immediately jumping to conclusions or providing a solution. Let the incoming knowledge sink in and take time to reflect. As you get better, listening in earnest won’t be so hard.

4. Manage meetings in a collaborative style.

Are you accustomed to doing most of the talking during meetings? Do you sometimes interrupt when others pipe up? Your intention might simply be to get through the meeting faster, but these leadership missteps can make team members feel like they don’t matter.

Try moderating your smaller meetings by giving every attendee the chance to speak without interruption. Avoid giving the floor only to extroverts by asking for feedback from everyone, perhaps starting at one end of the table and then working around it. If you struggle to stop yourself from chiming in and shutting down the conversation — or if your people seem hesitant to talk because they are afraid of offending you — consider hiring someone to moderate important get-togethers.

5. Accept feedback without knee-jerk reactions.

You cannot get better without hearing the truth, as difficult as that might be. Most employees will not go out of their way to tell you “like it is,” so you may want to implement anonymous feedback surveys to get an idea of what you’re doing well and where you can improve.

After receiving this feedback, aim to make changes. You may even want to talk to some colleagues about your intentions — this will hold you accountable as well as buoy the sense of trust you want to perpetuate within your organization. This will also show your team that you will treat their suggestions or concerns seriously.

Despite the autocratic nature of business leadership, day-to-day operations, ideas, and processes can still occur in a democratic environment. It’s a winning solution for modern companies that truly want happier workforces — and that want to ensure their "wheel" keeps turning for decades to come.