Serve to Be Great: 11 Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom

By simply shifting focus away from short-term goals and financial gain toward more effectively serving the people on their teams, leaders can create conditions for superior long-term results while simultaneously making the world a better place. Here, author Matt Tenney shares 11 lessons to help leaders achieve higher levels of lasting success while also living a more fulfilling life.

Hoboken, NJ (May 2014)—A recent Gallup poll shows that only 30 percent of Americans are actively engaged at work. And honestly, that doesn’t come as a big surprise. From dull, unfulfilling tasks to job-related stress to long hours to grueling commutes to unsatisfactory paychecks, there are many (many!) reasons why people might not enjoy their work. And, of course, there’s the number one reason of all: “I hate my boss!”

          If you’re tempted to write that off with a “Get over it; everyone hates their boss,” think again. We’re not talking about a standard “stick it to the man” attitude. According to Gallup’s chairman and CEO, fully 20 percent of American employees are actively disengaged because they have “bosses from hell that make them miserable.” In turn, these employees “roam the halls spreading discontent.” Yikes, right?

          But wait—there’s good news. According to author Matt Tenney, managers can turn this depressing situation around and create the ultimate win-win. By developing both the aspiration and the ability to more effectively serve and care for the people on their teams, managers can become leaders people actually want to follow. (Really!)

          “When the focus is on serving team members, leaders can create a team culture that people want to be a part of, that produces superior results, and that has a positive impact on society as a whole,” says Tenney, author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom (Wiley, May 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-86846-1, $25.00, “When this happens, leaders win too, because they get promoted faster and create the conditions for sustainable, long-term success. Perhaps more important, they actually enjoy going to work each day, and the people on their teams do, too.”

          Tenney’s extraordinary past provides him with a unique perspective on the power of serving and caring for team members. In Serve to Be Great, Tenney tells the compelling story of how his attempt to embezzle government funds led to five and a half years in military prison. During his sentence, Tenney’s perspective shifted from selfish to servant, prompting him to live and train as a monk for three years, and finally, to become a social entrepreneur. Tenney has cofounded and led two non-profits, as well as a speaking and training company devoted to helping leaders achieve greater long-term success while also making our world a better place.

          In addition to telling Tenney’s story, Serve to Be Great also includes an abundance of case studies, research, and tactics to help leaders make the shift to servant leadership.

          “Servant leadership doesn’t mean that we assume some menial, meek persona; it simply means that our motivation for leading people is to be of service to others,” Tenney explains. “I believe that somewhere inside each of us is the aspiration to devote ourselves to serving others. That said, it can be challenging to effectively serve the people on our teams, even if we want to. When we’re under stress—like the pressure to hit a goal or ‘make the numbers’—we tend to focus more on the short-term and can often sacrifice the relationships that are a foundation of long-term success. With training, you effectively serve team members even when the conditions are challenging.”

          Here, Tenney shares 11 tactics to help leaders achieve higher levels of success by consistently serving and inspiring greatness in others.

Focus on developing your influence as a leader. The qualities that make a great leader are quite different from those that make a good employee. An employee’s worth is judged based on how well she carries out the different tasks in her job description. But a leader’s worth is judged based on how well she is able to influence the behaviors of those on her team. (That’s why Tenney says one of the most common mistakes organizations make is promoting people to leadership positions based on their job performance. Job performance offers little to no insight into whether or not a person will succeed at leading a team to success!)

“The most effective way to build influence with others is to consistently demonstrate that you truly care about them and have their best interests in mind,” he confirms. “Herb Kelleher, founder and former chairman of Southwest Airlines, is a great example of how great leaders develop influence. He consistently showed employees how much he cared by doing things like coming in on Thanksgiving Day to help baggage handlers load suitcases onto planes.

“When he wrote a letter asking employees to find a way to save $5 a day for the second half of a year, he signed it, ‘Love, Herb.’ Employees knew that he meant it. And, as a result of the influence Herb had built, employees saved much more than $5 a day on average, helping Southwest keep their then 30-year streak of profitability going.”

Create a culture of servant leaders. Can you imagine being able to attract the most talented people in your industry, ensure that they’re fully engaged while they’re at work, and feel confident that they’ll stay on your team for the long haul? What would that do for your organization? Clearly, a great workplace culture—which is responsible for all three achievements—is one of the most important competitive advantages you can possess.

“The key to creating a highly effective workplace culture that people want to be a part of,” Tenney asserts, “is to make sure that team members feel cared for and that they’re a part of something meaningful and inspiring. This is accomplished easily when you build a culture of servant leadership. An e-commerce company called Next Jump is a great example of the power of building an organization full of people who are devoted to serving others and serving the greater good.

“The leaders at Next Jump consistently show how much they care,” he shares. “The company actually does the employees’ laundry for them. But they also find ways to help employees grow their ability to serve each other and the greater good. The most coveted award at Next Jump is a $30,000 package that goes to the employee who is voted by his or her peers to be the most helpful, selfless person in the company.

“A culture like the one at Next Jump produces extraordinary results,” Tenney says. “In 2012, the company accepted only 35 new hires out of almost 18,000 applicants. That’s a hire rate of 0.2 percent. And, although turnover in the tech space averages around 22 percent, at Next Jump, it’s less than 1 percent. This is despite the fact that highly talented employees there often receive phone calls from other companies offering two to three times the salary they currently receive.”

Increase innovation by being more compassionate.
Most leaders are aware of the importance of innovation, but many make the mistake of assuming that creativity and innovation are synonymous. Creativity, which is the ability to generate novel ideas, is not necessary for innovation. Innovation is a function of sticking with and executing on ideas—whether new or old—that don’t conform to the status quo, which results in turning an idea into something tangible, useful, and differentiated. So if you want innovation, Tenney says, you need to create an environment where people feel safe to take risks and stick with ideas that deviate from the norm.

“We need to listen non-critically to ideas,” he says. “We need to encourage and be forgiving of mistakes. In essence, we need to consistently show people that we truly care about them. SAS CEO Jim Goodnight is a great case study for how compassion fuels innovation. He showed incredible compassion for his people at the onset of the Great Recession by assuring them that no one would lose their job and simply asking that all employees be vigilant with spending. As a result of his care, they felt safe. They continued to disrupt the market with innovations through the recession, setting records for revenues, while most companies in the software industry were struggling to stay alive.”

Focus on your most important customer. Organizations that deliver world-class customer service have a few things in common. First, they spend very little money acquiring new customers because they’re able to keep the ones they have and because those customers are constantly referring others. Second, they don’t have to compete on price because their customers are willing to pay more for the excellent service they receive. And perhaps most important, their external customers aren’t their number one priority. The members of their organization are.

“The best way to ensure that your customers are consistently well cared for is to treat your team members with the same care you expect them to deliver to the customers,” Tenney explains. “By listening well and treating team members with kindness and respect, leaders develop team members who do the same for customers.

“When leaders focus on developing happy, loyal team members, happy, loyal customers are a natural side effect. A very simple way to put this principle into practice is to frequently communicate with team members about what you as the leader can do to help them be happy both at work and at home. Make an effort to show that all ideas are heard and considered, and try to execute on as many feasible ideas as possible.”

Get a better ROI on marketing by serving the community. Push marketing—broadcasting unsolicited messages to large numbers of people—is simply no longer an effective way to reach potential customers. In a world where people consume more information in a few hours than our ancestors did in an entire lifetime, our chances of being heard amid the noise are slim. To stand out from the chaos, Tenney recommends that you make serving the community a priority.

“When organizations develop leaders and team members who really care about others, community service efforts can be really powerful because people tend to talk about and remember them,” he asserts. “In addition to being rewarding (it’s simply the right thing to do!), serving the community is a very powerful way to build trust and rapport with potential customers.

“For instance, did you know that the apparel company Life is good has yet to spend a dime on traditional advertising?” he asks. “Years ago, they hosted a festival to raise money for youth going through challenging times. Afterward, the company realized that the media and word-of-mouth exposure was more valuable than the ad campaigns they had been considering. Up to that point, their growth curve had been pretty flat. Since then, it’s been almost vertical.”

Stop fixating on providing perks and pay more attention to the little things. In Serve to Be Great, Tenney offers several examples of companies that go to great lengths to show employees how much they care by offering incredible perks. But perks alone don’t result in a team culture that people want to be a part of.

“The perks aren’t necessary,” Tenney says. “Perks are easily copied and can been seen as a façade. What’s most important is to consistently show team members that you truly care about them—and believe it or not, that doesn’t take a lot of money or effort. Little things like making time for personal interaction, asking more questions, listening more, and showing sincere appreciation for a person’s efforts can go a long way. Honestly, we leaders need to carve out time for personal interaction; actually put it on our calendars. If we don’t, we might find that we’ve gone days, or even weeks, without connecting personally with team members.”

Make serving others a habit. Hardwiring servant leadership into your behavior is all about being mindful of seemingly small thoughts, decisions, and actions. For example, each time you’re about to interact with someone, ask yourself, How can I help this person? or, How can I contribute to this person’s happiness? You don’t need to have an immediate answer. Just adopting this attitude changes the dynamic of an interaction in positive ways, says Tenney. He also suggests starting each day by taking at least 5 or 10 minutes to contemplate the question, What can I do to better serve the people on my team today?

“The practice that made the biggest difference in my life is using the question, How will this help me to serve others? as a filter for decisions,” he shares. “Before I do something or consume something, I look at it from this perspective. This question helps me to waste less time pursuing things that don’t really matter, and has gradually made serving others the motivation for everything that I do.”

Gain power by giving it away. A common misperception among leaders is that they need to be the ones coming up with all of the great ideas or the people making great things happen. The best leaders, though, are the ones who are able to harness the talent and intelligence of the entire team. You can do this by pushing power down to the lowest levels possible.

“This is a great way to serve the people on your team,” Tenney says. “Empowered people become much more engaged in their work. You can empower your team members by involving them in decision making to the greatest extent possible, ensuring that they truly feel heard. You can also give team members final decision authority on tasks within their area of expertise. Just make sure that you’ve previously communicated the organization’s core values so that they can guide decision making. Let your people know that as long as a decision doesn’t conflict with a core value, you trust that they’ll do the right thing.”

Inspire your team to greatness. One of the greatest gifts we can offer team members is the gift of inspiration. In Serve to Be Great, Tenney cites Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of a leader who had an extraordinary ability to inspire others. He did so by connecting people to a purpose far greater than themselves and by carrying out his work with impeccable character.

“An important role of a leader is to clarify not only what the team does for the customer, but what the team does to make the world a better place,” Tenney explains. “The leader must also ensure that each team member can see clearly how his or her work contributes to that larger vision and find ways to frequently remind team members of their purpose.

“You can also inspire greatness in others by working to develop your character so that you consistently do the right thing, even when the personal costs are very high,” he continues. “At some level, we all aspire to be a person who put
s others first and always does the right thing. When we see someone else living in that way, it touches something deep inside us. We are reminded of who we can be. We are inspired.”

Measure the things that really matter. Most of us do a fairly good job of measuring our progress toward quantitative goals. In our personal lives, for instance, we measure progress toward checking items off of our to-do lists, losing weight, or making money. Likewise, large organizations measure things like sales numbers, expenses, and quarterly profits.

“What we need to do a better job of measuring is who we are and how well we treat each other,” Tenney asserts. “When we measure these things, we make a much better effort to improve in them. Remember, it’s who we are and how well we treat each other that drive long-term success. I suggest that you seek feedback on how well you as a leader live the values of the organization and how well you treat the members of your team. You should also measure those things in your team members. By doing so, you’ll make it clear that they’re important and that people must develop these areas to be considered for a leadership position.”

Practice mindfulness to become the Ultimate Leader. Mindfulness training—a simple, science-based practice for training attention and developing emotional intelligence—was the foundation of the transformation that Tenney underwent in military prison. In Serve to Be Great, he describes how the practice of mindfulness helps leaders become the best they can be.

“Most people want to do a better job of serving and caring for the people around them,” Tenney comments. “Mindfulness training helps us close the gap between intention and action. The practice has been proven to be extremely effective at increasing resilience during stressful situations, which will allow you to live up to your ideals of serving and caring for others even when you’re under intense pressure to hit a goal. The practice also gradually makes kindness, compassion, and a spirit of service your natural response to the people around you.

“Beginning the practice is very simple,” he continues. “Just pick a simple activity like drinking water and make an effort to let go of thinking and be fully present for that activity. Commit to being mindful each time you drink water for a week. The next week, continue with drinking water and add another activity. After a couple months, you’ll be practicing mindfulness during most of your day. You’ll notice that you’re happier, more resilient to stress, and more present for the people in your life.”

          “Being successful as a leader and living a meaningful, enjoyable life are not mutually exclusive,” concludes Tenney. “In fact, the two actually fuel each other. The very things that make life truly rich are the same things that create and sustain long-term success in both business and in life.

          “The best news is that it’s all highly trainable,” he adds. “Any one of us can become an extraordinary, highly effective leader who enjoys going to work each day because we know that we’re making our world a better place.”

About the Author:
Matt Tenney is the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom. He is also an international keynote speaker, a trainer, and a consultant with the prestigious Perth Leadership Institute, whose clients include numerous Fortune 500 companies. He works with companies, associations, universities, and non-profits to develop highly effective leaders who achieve lasting success by focusing on serving and inspiring greatness in the people around them. Matt envisions a world where the vast majority of people realize that effectively serving others is the key to true greatness. When he’s not traveling for speaking engagements, he can often be found in Nashville, Tennessee. For more information, visit

About the Book:
Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom (Wiley, May 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-86846-1, $25.00, is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797. For more information, please visit the book’s page at