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Former Walmart CEO Mike Duke Shares 3 Core Traits of Servant Leadership

Mike Duke offered one caveat before sharing a few traits he believes are important to effective leadership: They apply in any company, he said, as long as “there are people involved.”

That narrows it down to every company in the world! Even a solopreneur needs to practice self-leadership, not to mention leadership traits when dealing with customers, clients, vendors and the like.

Mike, of course, was responsible for far more than just himself during his leadership journey in the retail industry. In fact, as the CEO of Walmart, Mike oversaw a company with more than 2 million associates. But the traits he focused on during a recent episode of Off the Rak — acting with integrity, respecting other people, and being an example — are the same traits he developed beginning with his earliest days in his career, because they work for a servant leader in any environment.

“I really have come to see that servant leadership is absolutely the best form of leadership for multiple reasons,” Mike told me. “First — and it’s a really good business reason — is I think a servant leader gets better results, particularly in leading people.”

So what are the traits of a servant leader? Here are three that Mike mentioned:

Acting with integrity

Leaders operate under the watchful eyes of those they lead, Mike pointed out, so there’s no room for error when it comes to integrity. It is the “single most important characteristic of leadership,” he said.

“You can’t say, ‘I’ve had a bad day in the area of integrity,’” he said. “It’s just not a situation in leadership that’s allowed. And because people are watching, … it’s even more important that every action you do is an action of integrity.”

Respecting other people

In a people-oriented business like retail, Mike felt it was particularly important to make every associate at Walmart feel important and encourage them to do the best job possible, regardless of their role. Truck drivers, cashiers, and cart corallers deserve just as much respect for the work they do and who they are as people as store managers or corporate leaders.

This respect involves affirmation, but it also involves a willingness to speak the truth in love.

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“Servant leaders are honest,” he said. “They’re completely candid. They can share with people how to improve performance. They can share what the goals are. They’re really much more transparent. They’re willing to just be completely above board with everyone. They don’t really hold back. And I think that’s where honest servant leadership cares for people. When you care and you love people, you want them to succeed. And the best way to succeed is by being honest with them.”

Being an example

Because a leader’s actions are constantly watched, there’s an opportunity to show others how to lead well, not just in the uncompromising area of integrity, but with how you communicate, how you treat people, how hard you work, and your commitment to excellence.

“You are striving to be better than you were the day before,” Mike said. “So be an example of all areas of leadership.”

These traits all fit within the servant leadership approach that Duke learned from mentors that date all the way back to his high school physics teacher, who gave him advice on picking a college and pursing a field that would allow him to combine his interests in math and science with his love for people.

He also learned it from his first boss after he graduated college. During their interview, before Mike even took the job, he told him, “If you love people and you take good care of people, I promise you will have a great career in retail.” Then he showed Mike what that looked like, leading by example when it came to dealing with people and also demonstrating integrity with his actions.

“I was sitting in his office one time in the 1970s,” Mike recalled, “and I saw the way he acted with integrity when acquiring merchandise, merchandise that was in short supply. And he did the right thing no matter what.”

And when Mike arrived at Walmart — a company founded on the four core values of respect, service, excellence, and integrity — he said he “saw in the senior leaders that I reported to so many examples that I was able to learn from and grow in.”

Mike and I have been friends for years. We were in the CEO Forum together. And now we live near one another and occasionally have the opportunity to play golf together. So I’ve benefited not only from his wise words, but from watching him live out his beliefs. That’s one of the things I appreciate most about him: His commitment to live it out.

As we ended our conversation, I asked Mike about the advice he would give to younger leaders, and one thing he said was particularly powerful: “Focus first on your contribution, not on your compensation.” And if your contribution is founded on integrity, respect, and being a good example, you will do well in work and life.


  1. Erin Wellington

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    Reply to Erin Wellington

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