Effective leadership starts with being fair to those who you want to lead.

He looked content. He was not bothered that while everyone around him was feasting on entrees, his plate was filled with appetizers. Not many around the lunch table noticed either — except two individuals.

The person in this scene is a colleague, and the two individuals are the leaders of an Aspen Institute Fellowship program that I am undertaking right now. It did not take the leaders of this program more than a few minutes to realize that my colleague was a vegetarian, and the items on the buffet table were mostly non-vegetarian. Although my friend insisted that he was doing all right, they immediately ordered a vegetarian entree, so that he, too, could share his meal with rest of the team on equal terms.

At a cursory glance, this action may seem trivial — however, this is a matter of equity.

Equitable behavior with team-members goes a long way in improving overall productivity. An analysis of workload distribution from the Harvard Business Review revealed that promotion of equity at the workplace was one of the best predictors for team success.

This analysis illustrated negative effects from inequity on both sides of the spectrum: when high-performers are tasked with additional work, they start resenting their own behavior; conversely, when low-performers are deprived of standard work expectations, they start losing interest. It is clear that being unfair in any direction leads to dissatisfaction among team-members.

To be an effective leader, workload distribution should not be the only consideration. Our work is not only defined by what we do, but also by who we are. If you want to be an effective leader, you must focus on the person — and their values.

Team-members should not only be seen as a set of professionals with a particular skill-set, but individuals with preferences and life choices — supporting them leads to increased productivity.

Inequity breeds contempt. There are two ways to look at a relationship between the leader and her followers: transactional and transformational.

Transactional relationships at work, ones that are implemented through legal contracts, sets an expectation of work through the framework that is not built on trust. And, for many instances (such as working with complete strangers), it works. Despite that, it is a poor tool for inspiring team members.

Transformational relationships, on the other hand, are built on the premises of organizational mission and trust; they are, in fact, covenants. In such scenarios, team members do not see themselves as mere “cogs in a machine,” but as active participants in a movement that is bigger than them. It evokes inspiration.

There is a reason only a select group of companies succeed in the long run, and are able to retain high-quality workforce — it is because they do not consider their most important assest (their employees) as workers, but as people.

Later on, I asked my colleague how this gesture made him feel. “I felt like I belonged.”

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  • Junaid Nabi

    Reader; writer.

    Junaid Nabi, MD, MPH, is a physician, public health researcher, and medical journalist. His research and implementation work examines national and international health care systems to develop strategic frameworks that can optimize care delivery and promote equity. His research in bioethics examines the integration of artificial intelligence in medical decision making systems and colonialism in global health. Previously, he undertook research that examined the effect of health disparities that arise from social and political disenfranchisement. Junaid aspires to creating equitable health care delivery systems that can meet the needs of every patient, at a place where the patient is, not where the system wants them to be.