There is a tradition, especially among our military’s ground troops, that officers eat last. I’ll let the Army and Marines argue about who started it, but woe be unto the uninitiated Airman or Sailor who gets in the chow line out in the field with ground forces before all the enlisted men and women have been fed. I’ve seen it in action many times, and sometimes it means the officers go hungry.

When an Air Force airplane with a big crew lands at the end of a mission, the crew doesn’t put the aircraft to bed and head to quarters (or maybe the club) until everyone’s finished with their post-flight duties. The pilot in command (a good one, anyway) doesn’t leave the rest of her team behind because she’s the boss; she’s willing to pitch in because she knows other, less employed, team members will follow her example to the benefit of the entire crew. If the officers aren’t going to eat last, at least they’ll all eat together.

Who knows how the Navy does it on ships. I’ll leave it to someone else to write about that.

So what’s my point? What could that possibly have to do with the way you lead your team?

Eating last – making sure the troops are taken care of first – is an outward display of servant leadership, and the phrase obviously has less to do with who eats when than it does about putting others first. And while it should start at the top (at the CXO – the Chief Whatever Officer in your company), it sadly often doesn’t.

But don’t use a selfish C-suite or company culture as an excuse to “overlook” opportunities to take care of others before you fill your reward plate (or coffee cup). Here are a few ways I’ve seen servant leaders really shine in the workplace:

  1. First, your team has to believe you care. If you don’t, servant leadership isn’t for you. They’ll know if you’re faking it. That being said, I’ve seen that approach work for a short period of time with the result being a well-intentioned supervisor growing into a leader who actually cared for her team.
  2. Most bosses are blissfully unaware of two things: their own shortcomings and when their team is struggling. Becoming more aware of both before they become butt-biters only requires the use of a clever communication tool we call talking. Not texting or emailing, but an old-fashioned, honest face-to-face conversation about how things are going. It’s one of the ways to show you care.
  3. Don’t underestimate the value of compassion. We all have our own three-ring circuses going on outside the office, and it’s important to know when life’s challenges are affecting a team member’s performance. The return on cutting someone slack during a difficult period is huge with the payout being a more trusting and loyal employee.
  4. Don’t pretend you’ve had nothing but success. Share what you’ve learned in your time in the organization, not in a “this is how to do your job” sense, but the lessons learned through experience – good and bad – that will help your team struggle less to deliver excellence. That may sound like a no-brainer, but if more leaders helped their teams learn vicariously from the leader’s past mistakes (we’re all human, after all), leadership development consultants like me would have to find a new line of work.

We’ve reminded scores of leaders over the past years that they can’t be successful unless their team is successful. A servant leadership mindset is one of those ways a leader can keep from looking upwards into the organization for signs of his success and stay focused on ensuring his team has what it needs to deliver that success.

And while you’re at it, get used to “eating last.” Make being considerate of others a habit not just at the office but at home, in traffic, at the store – wherever you interact with other humans. If eating last becomes a way of life, the worst that can happen is that people think you’re a thoughtful, unselfish person.

No better time to try it than now, leaders.

It’s up to you.

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