• Nick Mehta is the CEO of Gainsight, a customer service software company with more than 600 employees.
  • In this op-ed, he says that if you're a manager, a leader, or especially a CEO, there's a fundamental question you need to ask yourself: Are you giving your team everything they need to succeed?
  • Rather than making excuses for why things don't work, leaders should embrace 'servant leadership' and work to empower their teams from the bottom up.
  • To do that, listen more than you speak, and remind your team members often about their purpose.

Have you heard of the Red Eye Coefficient? It's the value that shows the relationship between the speed of a company's growth and the number of red-eye flights the CEO must take. As the CEO of a fast-growth company, I've banked some serious air miles while most of the country has been sleeping.

I simultaneously dread red-eye flights and revel in them. They can be exhausting and brutal, but they've also led to some of the most profound moments of my life. There's something about being at the end of your mental and physical rope and being all alone with your laptop that can bring out the inspiration in you. I wanted to share one red-eye realization I recently had that speaks to a big problem I see with CEOs and leaders.

As I leaned on the cold window of seat 9F trying to sleep, I ended up in a recursive loop of memories of all times I was told to act more "businesslike," to be "less emotional," and to "show more poise." I know I'm not the only one. Since probably forever (or at least the Industrial Revolution), people have been told to leave their emotions at the door when there's a job to do. That the biggest barrier to their success is their feelings. Never let them see you sweat. Don't show any sign of vulnerability, or people will pounce on it. The only thing that matters is the company's bottom line. And all too often we hear "it's not personal, it's business" when it comes to making hard decisions. CEOs speak with lay-off euphemisms like "cutting the fat" and "tightening our belts" to morally justify firings as "better for the long run."

The big question

But if you're a manager, a leader, or especially a CEO, there's a question you need to ask yourself. It's fundamentally a question about what it means to lead, and I'd love for you to answer as objectively as you can: Are you giving your team everything they need to succeed?

The role of a leader isn't to tell people what to do, it's to give them the resources they need to thrive. Unfortunately, when things don't go right, too many leaders look everywhere but the mirror for where to place blame.

Rather than making excuses for why things don't work or why hard decisions must be made, leaders should embrace servant leadership, working to empower their teams from the bottom up as opposed to driving them.

But what does this mean practically? What are you actually supposed to do? There are four prongs to a servant leadership approach that you can start doing today:

1. Be the change you want to see in others

I have a really hard time expecting of others what I don't of myself. If I want people to admit mistakes, I need to as well. If I want people to learn, I need to model that behavior. To give me a routine around this, I send a detailed email to the entire company every week sharing what I learned in the last week. I try to share publicly mistakes that I've made any time I get a chance.

2. Appreciate those who are setting the example

It's not just about me. I've learned to try to encourage other leaders to be vulnerable in their presentations and communications and then I always try to reinforce the behavior by commending them on their openness. At this point, each manager at Gainsight has a unique way of showing their true self.

3. Remind your team of their purpose

We tend to (mistakenly) believe the reason we come to work every day is a paycheck. But if you've read Daniel Pink's book "Drive," you'll know that people are much more motivated by Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. A lot of companies have programmatic approaches to driving Mastery and Autonomy, but not Purpose. I take every opportunity to infuse our company purpose into our strategy as well as into everyday conversations. If you're not already doing this, in every communication you should remind everyone, from your employees to your customers, of their purpose.

4. Listen

This is such an old adage that it's cliché. But I love the adage, "Listen to understand, not to respond." So when I meet with teammates to get feedback, I try to ready myself to soak it in and be gracious versus coming back with a debate or even with a solution. I also think powerful questions can help spur discussion. I ask new teammates "what's better about Gainsight than advertised? What's harder than advertised?"

Does being a human-first leader mean you don't make tough decisions? Of course not. From time to time, you're going to have to do things that don't feel great. As a CEO, sometimes even small decisions can have a huge impact (good or bad) on real human beings. But I ask myself this all the time: Am I causing pain for others in the interest of a "rational" decision? If I am, I better be feeling that pain myself many times over — or I've lost my humanity. That pain is a precious signal, reminding us to keep humans first in our decision calculus.