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Making Sure Your Walk Matches Your Talk

J. Kevin McHugh
J. Kevin McHugh

The leadership style that is the most effective at driving confidence and high performance, according to research, is servant leadership.

If you are a business owner, no matter how large or small that business is, you are, by default, a leader. And if your leadership style is creating cognitive dissonance within the people around you, you are unleashing a lot of undue stress on those people. This is not a good thing, especially considering COVID-19 and the political landscape in many regions has made 2020 a particularly tumultuous year for many. A recent State of Mental Health survey underscores this fact and makes it clear that a lot of people are stressed out right now, so why add to the strain?

Those with good business leadership skills are able to influence and motivate others, including customers, to work toward common goals, and there are myriad ways in which this influence can take place successfully. Leadership style, while varying from person to person, dictates the manner in which this influence will occur. The leadership style that is the most effective at driving confidence and high performance, according to research, is servant leadership. Servant leaders facilitate confidence, affirming the strengths and potential of the team and others, and provide development support.

Are you a servant leader?

A good place to start is by practicing a little self-awareness ... examine if your walk matches your talk. Are you creating confusion by saying one thing and doing another? Or are you transparent, focused and consistent?

Think about it from your own point of view based on past experiences. We've all witnessed people that profess, proclaim and speak about amazing business culture, and all of the wonderful glowing things that go with them, but who don't actually walk that talk. The result is a big disconnect, which is immediately experienced by everyone that business touches, from employees to customers, and even vendors.

Here is another example: What happens when someone in your network is known for saying a bunch of stuff that sounds great, and they're captivating in front of the camera or in articles, but the experience when you interact with them is completely different? That person's credibility goes down significantly. The cognitive dissonance created by that person saying one thing and doing another strips away their integrity and diminishes trust. 

Becoming aware of your inconsistencies 

Unfortunately, a lot of us in business are ignorant of most of our shortcomings. Typically, people, like the person highlighted above, remain unaware of their duality until someone brings it to their attention, and that doesn't happen very often. If you want to take self-awareness seriously, you shouldn't wait for a confrontation or teachable moment. If you want to know how you're doing, ask people every day.

Every conversation is an opportunity to ask team members and others touched by your business if things are OK, if things make sense, if you're doing anything that causes a disconnect. People will react to you in the way that they perceive you. Constant conversations and self-evaluation help to make you approachable and authentic. This is the recipe for servant leadership.

5 traits that make you a more self-aware leader

Now that you know the value of becoming a servant leader, here are five traits to focus on as you continue your journey of becoming a more consistent, self-aware business leader.


First and foremost, a servant leader recognizes and understands feelings and emotions that are experienced by people around them. Business leaders with empathy care for other people and experience emotions that match what others are feeling. Since they understand others so deeply, their actions are motivated by a genuine desire to help others.

When you are running your own business, it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, becoming tunnel-visioned on the situations that are right in front of your face. Each new thing becomes an obstacle, keeping you from the next thing on your list. Unfortunately, when this happens, it becomes very difficult to see the forest from the trees. When this happens, it is critical that you take a moment or two and readjust your point of view.

Instead of focusing on the transactional parts of the business day, focus instead on the people around you. Pay attention to how they are reacting to what's going on and how they are reacting to you. Try to put yourself in their shoes, and then treat them as you would want to be treated if you were them. This is the groundwork for becoming more empathetic and will put you well on the way to becoming more self-aware.   


By paying complete attention to what others are saying, servant leaders are able to get a complete understanding of what the people they lead are dealing with. They use active listening to resolve conflicts, counsel others, and share wisdom and advice.

The other day I was talking to a vendor about a particular service, and I explained to them what it was I was looking for. Their response was to tell me about all the things I needed rather than acknowledge they understood what it was I was looking for. They were so focused on selling me a particular service that they didn't even listen to what my needs were. And as a customer, this left me feeling a bit perturbed, to say the least. My time was wasted, and they missed out on an easy sell. 

Unfortunately, we live in a society where a lot of what we talk about is "me." In an attempt to win people over, many of us are overly focused on what we are going to say next without listening to what the person in front of us is saying at that moment. When we are practicing good listening skills, we are 100% focused on what the person in front of us is saying – and our internal voice telling us what to say next is turned off.


An important quality of a servant leader is their ability to conceptualize, or imagine the possibilities of the future and reconcile it with current realities. This ability helps the leader visualize a bright time ahead, and take the necessary steps to get there.

This doesn't mean you have to be a futurist or hold some sort of psychic abilities. This is a simple way of saying, "think ahead." Think about the big picture and how the steps ahead of where you are at now will get you to the place you need to be. For some of us, this makes it easier to stomach tossing in the towel on smaller battles in order to win the war. Try to take emotion out of the equation and react with planning and logic.

Community building

Under a servant leader, people come together for a common purpose. They are able to create a feeling of belonging to something bigger than each individual and foster team spirit and a sense of community. Servant leaders also care deeply, and authentically, for the community that they create.

For small business owners, this can mean being an active part of your local neighborhood, ethnic or religious community, chamber of commerce, or an industry association. Most business sectors have some sort of industry association or networking body, and I highly recommend becoming a member and serving on any committees or workgroups that are available. This will get you connected with what's happening from an industry perspective, and it can help position you as a leader. The same goes for any of the other communities you are a part of: Get involved.

Committed to the growth of others

A servant leader takes it upon themselves to develop others. They are likely to help others chart out a clear career path and provide them with resources to progress from one level to the next. A great way to do this as a small business leader is to become a mentor or take on an intern or part-time staff member. By teaching others, we are giving back. And that's what servant leadership is all about.

If you are looking to grow from being just a businessperson to being a business leader and want to go from good to great, the tips above will help you get there. It will take practice and commitment, but don't give up. Even if you are a sole proprietor, you can still be a leader.   



Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
J. Kevin McHugh
J. Kevin McHugh Member
J. Kevin McHugh is the president of JKM Management Development, a management consulting firm specializing in increasing organizational performance and coaching business leaders to develop emotional awareness, conflict resolution capabilities, and maximize executive effectiveness. He currently serves on the board of directors for Jack Cooper Transport and has been a guest lecturer at Case Western Reserve University, Weatherhead School of Management.