This Is What Makes a Really Great Leader

March 15, 2016, 12:30 PM UTC
Close up of business people shaking hands in a row
Photograph by Getty Images/OJO Images RF

Timing is everything.

Consider the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t the first person to talk about civil rights. Indeed, there were many before him who, like King, were great orators. If King had entered the scene 10 years prior, he would be virtually unknown today.

With the release of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list last week, it is clearer than ever that business is in the midst of a pivotal era. Study after study shows us that people are looking for more—and not just millennials. Everyone is questioning purpose, seeking connection, and feeling a pull to bring more of themselves to the table more of the time—including at work.

This wasn’t as true 10 years ago as it today. Best-selling business books, executive forums, as well as hard evidence are all showing us that increasingly, business is just as much about the people who drive it as it is about the products they create, and just as much about culture as it is about the bottom line.

If there was ever a time for building a great workplace, it is now—not only for executives on the 99th floor, but for people on the 37th floor, the second floor, in a trench in the middle of the street, working for a telecom company eight feet underground, on top of a hot roof, or in a warehouse that gets up to 126 degrees. All of these employees need to feel their workplace is great.

A great workplace isn’t just for some people—it’s for everybody.

I experienced my first great workplace in college while working part time at Hewlett Packard (HPQ) in the late ‘70s. In their open-management system, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard sat in cubicles on the main floor, just like everyone else. One day, I was on my way out of the office to go teach science and math—subjects I was passionate about—to middle school kids from a very tough local neighborhood. Though we’d never interacted directly before, on a whim I decided to stop by Bill’s desk to tell him about my volunteer work, and ask if he would be willing to donate calculators to the kids.

He asked how many I needed, and I told him about 200 His response: “Is Friday soon enough?”

On Friday, the 200 calculators were on my desk with a note: “Let me know if you need anything else.”

Amazingly, years later when I was an executive at Kaiser Permanente, I got a call from a manager in the IT department. He told me that he was one of those kids who received a calculator that day, and that it was the turning point for him in pursuing a career in math. It will always be unknown to him, but Hewlett’s small decision years prior made a profound impact on this man’s life.

For this reason and many others, Hewlett Packard was a great workplace for me. I could be myself, and I had a voice. Without any paperwork involved, Hewlett made an investment in me, because that’s the kind of leader he was. He trusted me, and his actions directly helped me achieve my goal to help others. I realized that this is how leadership could be done—better yet, this is how leadership should be done.

Fast forward 40 years, and now I’m a CEO myself. As a leader, I want my employees to experience a great workplace—each and every one of them—not just because it makes me feel good to do this, because it does. Caring about people makes a person’s life better. But if you’re in business, the bottom line matters too.

When you have the kind of workplace I experienced at 18, it does impact the bottom line. It means that when you’re in the shower, you’re thinking about what you can do to help your employer and your colleagues. You’re thinking about your next great idea, because your job is a part of who you are, and you know you’ll be supported.

You’re a person who has been empowered to bring your gifts into the world. When you’re in it, you know that you’re in it. It’s kind of like being in the zone in sports. You don’t want to think about it—you’re just in it and you enjoy it.

Who doesn’t want an employee like that?

On the flip side, when people are not experiencing a great workplace, it’s impossible to bring their best selves to work—the inspired ideas and enthusiastic involvement all fall to the wayside. Worse than that, they bring the lesser parts of themselves to work. They start to feel separate from everybody else. Work becomes “just a job”—a means to a paycheck. These people often leave, but it’s worse to have them stay. Their negativity can spread. One rotten apple can wreck the barrel. That worm travels.

But when people are enjoying what they do all while making a difference, making a good living, and taking care of their families, they feel a certain way about themselves that has a positive ripple effect through others’ lives, through communities, and out to society at large.

This is something that every employee deserves, and it’s something that every leader has the ability to influence.

True leadership isn’t about continuing to be the leader that you are. It’s about moving forward, constantly challenging yourself, and re-thinking. It’s about living in the question and learning so that you can find out what kind of leader your customers need you to be, what kind of leader your business needs you to be, and what kind of leader your community and society needs you to be. It’s about growing and challenging yourself in that way.

Building a great workplace is a powerful way to do this—I know, because at Great Place to Work, we help companies build great cultures, and we see the incredible impact it has on leaders, employees, customers, and communities. As with any profound change, it’s not something you can do overnight. It’s a journey. And once you start, it’ll be what you do through your life as a leader.

Every great leader has their time. Don’t let yours pass you by.


Michael Bush is CEO of Great Place to Work, the longtime research partner for Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For and other best workplaces lists.

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