The Three Fundamental Leadership Traits That Support Enduring Organizations

Near the completion of the luxurious Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, all construction halted. To successfully complete the resort, the main tower’s foundation needed additional support as it was sinking ½ to ¾ inch per week.

Like Mandalay Bay, many organizations find themselves in the same boat after years of operation – needing to strengthen their foundation to ensure sustainability and organizational success. To fortify the Las Vegas resort, 500 micropiles were sunk below its surface. In business, ensuring a lasting and successful organization requires foundational leadership at its core.

For the past two decades I have worked with leaders and leadership teams in various and diverse industries around the world, both big and small, good and bad. I have intently studied their behaviors and business results and uncovered three consistent traits by which foundational leaders support sustainable and successful organizations. They all excel because they are deeply committed to:

  • Establishing trust
  • Demonstrating care
  • Practicing servant leadership

The foundational leaders who have held these three tenets dear have created engaging cultures and delivered strong growth in their businesses, year after year. Leaders failing to embrace this powerful combination of foundational leadership principles steered the helm of a sinking business and lost their jobs soon after.

Establishing Trust

All healthy and fruitful relationships in life require trust at their center. If you don’t trust a person, partner, boss or organization to do what they say they will do or act with transparency and integrity, it is impossible to ever enjoy the full benefit of your relationship. Likewise, if you don’t give trust to others, they will not return it.

Trust is the bedrock of leadership and of healthy organizational cultures. If employees don’t trust you, they will not respect you and you will never get them to give you their all. They will simply do the minimum to retain their job. This type of behavior does not drive the high performance results organizations desire.

A national Gallup Poll highlighted that “the chances of employees being engaged at work when they do not trust the company’s leaders are just one in 12.” The poll also revealed a better than one in two chance of engagement when the organization’s leadership is trusted.

Trust has a direct correlation to business results. In Stephen Covey’s video Leading at the Speed of Trust, he explains how high trust increases speed and reduces cost in all relationships, interactions and transactions. He emphasizes the fact that organizations that don’t earn trust simply don’t have the ability to achieve accelerated growth and sustainability. In fact, studies by organizations such as Watson Wyatt show that organizations with high-trust outperform low-trust ones by nearly 300%.

If you have leaders in your organization who don’t naturally instill trust, your foundation is in need of repair. Solutions to this problem include: moving such leaders to non-people management roles or asking them to leave your organization, in both cases inserting new leaders who can support the future growth and success of your organization. Once trust is broken, it is incredibly difficult to repair and never fully regained.

Demonstrating Care

A CEO once told me his organization was not the “caring type.” He was removed from his role not long after as his business results continued to travel in the wrong direction. Great leaders sincerely express concern for their people, creating a culture of care.

Harvard Business Review article, “Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better,” cited a study surveying 3,201 employees in seven different industries. The study found that employees who felt they worked in a caring culture reported higher levels of job satisfaction and teamwork than those who did not. Plus, those workers recognized an increased commitment to their organizations and accountability for their performance.

The study demonstrates the correlation between caring for your people and organizational success. It concludes that caring for your employees is good for them, your customers and your business. Caring for your employees during working hours is important, but only half the requirement.

It is easy to fall into the trap of only caring about or focusing on the things employees do for you while at work. Employees’ lives should include more than work. Leaders who don’t respect this balance set up their business for mediocre results, at best. They also push their employees toward resentment and regret later in life.

Effectively caring for your employees is not difficult. In fact, it is the simple, easy and free things which matter most. Not sure how best to approach this? Try remembering an employee’s birthday or asking about their weekend, child’s birthday party or night school progress. Inquire after marathon training or if they are feeling better after being out sick. Discuss life outside work, including things which are important to them. Truly engaging your whole employee accomplishes more than any amount of money, or complex reward or recognition system could. Most employees can’t recall who handed them a cash bonus or certificate or what it was for, but ask when an organization or boss showed care for them in a time of need or celebration and the memory will be fresh.

Anything you can do for your employee to help them be successful in their role and at your organization goes a long way to show you care for them. But, helping your employees succeed in life – both employment and personal – matters the most to them and your business.

Bottom line: The more you care for your employees, the better business results you will achieve.

Practicing Servant Leadership

At a recent meeting I attended, the team’s leader was asked by his team to describe his role in the organization. Without hesitation, he responded, “I am employed to serve you.”

Servant-leaders put the needs of others before their own. This includes their employees, customers, families and communities. They believe that serving others is their mission in life. They count their successes by the times they are able to help others thrive.

Robert Greenleaf, the renowned leadership development expert and father of the term “servant leadership” felt the heart of the concept is captured in the assertion “My success is your success.” He went on to say that “Servant-leaders differ from other persons of good will because they act on what they believe.” To excel as a servant-leader, Greenleaf outlined “10 Leadership Characteristics” critical to their success:

  1. Listening: a deep commitment to honestly listen to others
  2. Empathy: a striving to understand and empathize with others
  3. Healing: the potential for healing one’s self and one’s relationship to others
  4. Awareness: a keen awareness of their surroundings and self
  5. Persuasion: an ability to convince others and build consensus
  6. Conceptualization: the ability to think short and long-term and pursue “impossible” dreams
  7. Foresight: a drive to reflect on the lessons of the past, embrace the realities of the present, and envision the likely consequences of a decision for the future
  8. Stewardship: a sincere and emotional commitment to care for things important to others
  9. Commitment to the growth of people: a focus on helping others become better people – professionally and personally
  10. Building community: the ability to pull people together for a greater good

In life, the more you serve others the more success and fulfillment you will enjoy. It is a basic truth of humanity. The same holds true for leadership.

As an individual contributor, you perform the work yourself. When you lead people, you must shift your focus to ensuring others can successfully perform their work. To effectively do this, your role must shift to serve your employees and teams, not the other way around.

In the article “The Advantages of the Servant Leadership Style,” the author states, “Leaders that use the servant leadership style tend to gain a great deal of respect and trust from their employees, according to psychology professor Paul T. P. Wong of Tyndale University College in Toronto. The strong positive feelings between management and employees that the servant leadership style promotes translate into a high sense of morale. When employees are satisfied with their jobs and their company, workplace productivity rises.”

The success of embracing a foundational leadership style and organizational culture that establishes trust, demonstrates care and practices servant leadership has its roots in religious institutions, educational systems and the military. It fosters high employee engagement delivering winning business results. Employing and developing foundational-leaders with this leadership model in mind supports and creates lasting and successful organizations.

I want to hear your leadership success stories. Share them in the comment section below.

For more information about me and my new book How to Find a Job, Career and Life You Love (Second Edition) and companion recording, Surrender to Your Purpose go to and iTunes.


Published on Forbes, 11th May 2015.

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