On Sept. 21, 2004, Winning Workplaces and FORTUNE Small Business held the first annual “Best Bosses Seminars and Celebration” event. The program consisted of an afternoon series of seminars and an evening dinner where this year’s Best Bosses were announced. The program featured a diverse group of speakers, representing firms both big and small, who had succeeded in creating high-performance workplaces. These included Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital Management and financial correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America; John Edwardson, CEO and chairman of CDW; and six of 2003’s Best Bosses:

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the event was having the opportunity to hear our speakers discuss how and why they created people-friendly workplaces. What I found striking in listening to their stories was the role values played in shaping their leadership. In fact, their stories confirmed something that I’ve always suspected – running a business is a profoundly personal endeavor. Each of the event’s speakers acknowledged that they strived to create the kind of workplaces that they would want to work in.

For example, Peggy Finley spoke at length about having worked in organizations where fear was used to motivate employees and how uncomfortable she felt expressing her opinions or sharing ideas. She said that, soon after taking over as K40 Electronics’ CEO, she worked hard to reinvent its culture. She wanted to create a “safe place” for employees where they were heard and appreciated, the kind of place she had always sought during her previous work history.

Many of the day’s other speakers shared similar stories. Mike Mulqueen talked about how his career in the Marines taught him the value of recognizing people’s accomplishments and how he has always tried to make his employees at the Greater Chicago Food Depository feel that their contributions were appreciated. Ariel Capital Management President Mellody Hobson discussed company founder John Rogers’ vision for the firm: an organization where employees didn’t punch a clock and where co-workers trusted and respected one another. CDW CEO John Edwardson, in talking about the challenge of replacing founder Michael Krasny, expressed his desire to preserve the environment that attracted him to the organization in the first place – one that stresses empowering employees and values their feedback on important decisions.

Each of these speakers’ stories contradicts the long-held myth of effective leadership as being dispassionate and numbers driven. In essence, their stories reflected a deep personal belief in one of the most universal values – the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Business is nothing if not a human endeavor and empathizing with employees is a powerful exercise integral to any leader’s success. In fact, Southwest Airlines, long noted for its strong customer service and effective people practices, has gone so far as to make adhering to the Golden Rule a corporate policy. And they are not alone. Enterprise Rent-A-Car, MBNA, the New York Times, State Farm Insurance, Dell Computer and eBay explicitly follow this philosophy. Each of these organizations puts building mutually beneficial partnerships with its employees and customers ahead of straight bottom-line issues and each are leaders in their respective industries. Study after study reveals that companies like Southwest Airlines have not only equaled the financial performance of their more profit-focused competitors, but surpassed them. In other words, they have done well by doing good.

It should come as no surprise that the Golden Rule lays at the heart of these organizations’ success. Lynne Sharp-Paine, in her book Value Shift, discusses a radical change in the way the public has come to view the societal role of corporations. She details a shift from the traditional idea of businesses as neutral instruments of wealth creation to the contemporary notion of them as moral actors with responsibilities to a wide range of stakeholders, including employees. Ultimately, the book argues that the current zeitgeist demands more from business than mere wealth creation and that today’s definition of corporate excellence encompasses far more than profits and losses.

When we lead according to the Golden Rule and consciously, as the saying goes, attempt to “walk a mile in another’s shoes,” we are engaging in a deeply social action, one which promotes sound business practices. We are considering how to best communicate with others, how to create effective partnerships, and how to engage people in working towards mutually beneficial results. More importantly, we are leading by example. We cannot expect our employees to conscientiously serve our customers, if we do not first make a good-faith attempt to serve our employees needs first.