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Employees Trust Leaders That Practice 3 Powerful Habits


A friend recently told me about a previous company trying to lure him back to his old position. In a moment of crisp clarity, he said he could never return, no matter how enticing the offer. The reason? One toxic leader in the ivory tower makes life miserable for others below. I agreed that my friend chose to take the higher road.

I, too, left a company once due to a toxic CEO with low emotional intelligence. His Grand Canyon-sized ego manifested in bullying and controlling behaviors that sent some of his best people packing. In exit interview data of the top-five reasons people quit, he was "reason No.5." (I say this with accuracy because I collected the data)

Out With the Old 

If you subscribe to the notion that establishing power over and control of your people is the way to produce results, I ask you to reconsider. Top-down bosses who spread fear are notorious for killing intrinsic motivation. And when that happens, good-employees-turned-order-takers stop exercising the traits employers wish to see in their people- proactive, creative, self-starters. Employees who don't self-start, make decisions on their own, give input, get feedback, and grow as people with purpose, eventually suffocate and lose the will to contribute meaningfully. Exit, stage left.

In With the New


Regardless of what generation you identify with, every employee with a pulse wants to be treated like a valued and trusted human being with the freedom to use their God-given brain. This requires a new behavioral paradigm for leaders to connect with people's hearts and minds--a "human to human" approach to leadership. While my human-to-human leadership skills list is much more exhaustive than this, for this article, I posit that every leader will require the capacity to display these three qualities in order to see discretionary effort released in their employees.

They Listen

Effective communication isn't just about talking; it is also about the ability to listen and understand what's happening on the other side of the fence. You listen for meaning and understanding with the other person's needs in mind. This is listening with a servant leader's heart. Bosses also benefit from this listening style because the more receptive you are to helping your team, the more you make it a safe place for employees to be open enough to give you great input, ideas, and contributions.


If you sense that a top performer isn't happy and at risk of leaving your company, you must do something about it immediately. This is where the power of listening takes over. Here are four steps to saving a valued, unhappy employee:

  1. Contact them ASAP and ask why they're looking for another job.
  2. Listen to what they say and ask follow-up questions.
  3. Look for ways to change their situation and make things better.
  4. Follow through and implement the changes; do it quickly.

They Practice Self-Control

In a previous company, I vividly recall an executive marching down the hall spewing expletives on his way to wage war with a middle manager. An ongoing issue boiled over, and this exec just lost it. The commotion left some people very uncomfortable. As leaders, when we react in such a manner, we are being impulsive, shortsighted, and usually not giving much thought to what we are doing. It usually happens when we don't get something we want or react on impulse to an unresolved issue. Or maybe out of fear of something. Then, "fight, flight, or freeze" takes over. All three prospects can be equally damaging. You may end up domineering or withdrawing, clouding your thinking and judgment. In a communication exchange, this can easily escalate when the other person reacts without thinking first, turning a conversation into a heated argument that goes south fast.

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On the other hand, leaders who exercise self-control are good at self-regulating--managing themselves and their emotions. For example:

  • They identify their feelings and exercise self-awareness before acting on their emotions.
  • They figure out what their triggers are, and what caused them to react a certain way.
  • They are aware of when negative emotions happen so they can alter the course for a better response the next time.
  • They are intentional about change, especially changing their mindset to "this is who I choose to be" rather than maintaining "this is who I am."

They Display Humility as a Leadership Strength

I've heard a few times from people in position of power that humility is weak. Yet this core virtue counters what makes a bad leader: pride, self-centeredness, judgmentalism, control, and impulsiveness. Author and thought-leader Jim Collins of Good to Great fame has probably dedicated more time to writing about humble leaders than any other topic in his landmark study of Level 5 Leadership. He states,

"Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious--but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves."


How do you display humility and still retain your authority as a respected leader? Consider these for your playbook:

  1. Ask your most trusted peers this question: "Does my behavior increase trust?" Don't take offense at objectivity. Thank them and do something about it.

  2. Before pulling the trigger on an important decision--lone-ranger style--consider whether you're looking at the whole picture and both sides of an issue from various and diverse perspectives. Practically speaking, this may require tapping into the feelings of others to consider a different and even better outcome. That's humility.

  3. Self-diagnose. Do others see you as dependable and accountable for your actions? Do people feel safe in your presence? Are you often seen as "influential?" These are trademarks of a powerfully humble leader.

Your Turn

What's your experience with what makes truly loyal employees who will give their best for a leader? What would you add to this list as hallmarks of leaders that employees naturally trust? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

Marcel Schwantes

Marcel Schwantes is an Inc. Magazine Contributing Editor, global speaker, and leadership coach with a worldwide following. He is the creator of the highly rated From Boss to Leader course and host of the popular Love in Action podcast. His powerful keynotes teach leaders the steps to building great work cultures where people and businesses flourish. Visit www.marcelschwantes.com or follow him on LinkedIn.

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