When I first heard the term servant leadership
, I focused on servant
, which conjures images of someone passing hors d'oeuvres at a party. And it might seem unusual to seek business advice from the guy handing out cheese and crackers.
As a servant leader myself, how can I be the guy handing out the snacks and also lead a team of software engineers, analysts, and testers? Robert Greenleaf’s essay, The Servant as Leader
, is an inspired document for those of us who lead as servants. Greenleaf asserts that the choice to serve comes before the choice to lead.
The servant-leader is servant first
It begins with the natural desire to serve and then a conscious choice to lead. The person who behaves this way is sharply different from one who manages people. Unlike the manager, the servant leader puts people before profits and service before rewards. He or she empowers others to develop and perform as well as possible.
The leader and the manager – let’s check the org chart
The manager gets his or her title from the human resources department. Managers have legal authority as defined by the company. “Leader,” on the other hand, is not a human resources title. A leader’s authority is bestowed by the people who accept
People follow those they have chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants
Think about that, and think about some of the bosses you’ve had. Who were the leaders and who were the managers? In my case, the leaders were the ones who served me. They cared about my well-being, they mentored me in life and in my career, and they helped me to grow personally and professionally. By doing this, these leaders earned my loyalty. The managers, on the other hand, didn’t focus on my needs; they treated me like a work asset. I was given no more thought than my next work assignment. These managers got my compliance but not my loyalty.
The story of Sally the tester
When we were stitching our team together and looking for a new tester, Sally’s name (that’s not her real name) came up as someone who was available. She had worked on our software before, so I felt that she was a good fit and asked her to join our team. Sally was a bit chattier than most other members of the team, but she proved to be a star tester. She understood the software, asked the right questions, and pushed when she had to.
Then there was a big company initiative already past its due date. With one month to complete it, the manager asked for help and I suggested Sally, our best tester.
When the month was over, this manager gladly gave Sally back to our team. I was shocked to find that he was not impressed with her work. Several members of that team also gave negative feedback about Sally. At first I questioned myself, wondering whether my standards were just that low. How could she underperform on that team and outperform on ours? In talking with Sally, I found that it wasn’t the work — it was the management style.
Leading from beside
Sally commented that I was “one of us.” I didn’t lead from above Sally, I led from her side. The servant leader accepts and empathizes but sets high expectations. On the other team she may have been alienated or isolated, but on our team she was comfortable enough to assert herself as a contributing member. Given the right environment, Sally created value as a high-performing tester.
Sally didn’t have a voice on the other team
The other team’s meetings were held top-down, in that the team-lead spoke and the team listened. This manager missed the opportunity to serve Sally. He missed her problems and her solutions. I believe that a servant leader responds by listening first and empowering the speaker to find a solution.
We accepted Sally for who she is
Acceptance of a person requires a tolerance of imperfection. Anybody can lead perfect people, but there aren’t any perfect people. In Sally’s case, sometimes she’d take too long on her daily stand-up because she enjoyed talking with us, or she wanted more information, or she just wanted to be in the loop (she was offshore). Our team and the other team noticed her propensity to speak a lot. Our team also knew that each of us had some personality trait that rendered us less than “perfect.”
Many able people are overlooked because their managers cannot work through the imperfections that we all bring to the table. However, the “typical” person (and even the immature, stumbling, inept, and lazy person) is capable of great dedication and heroism if wisely led. The secret of motivating people to greatness is by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be.
Nowadays servant leadership conjures images of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King. Their greatness manifested itself in the care they took to make sure that other people’s highest-priority needs were being served.
When leading, or better yet when serving your team, ask yourself: Are those served growing as persons/individuals? Under your service, are they becoming healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous? Are they likely to become servants themselves?
I have come to believe that when we lead not as the privileged elite but as “one of us,” we give those whom we lead the opportunity to surpass expectations. Servant leaders such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King had an everlasting impact on the world. As servant leaders, we can have as great an impact on those we serve.
For more inspiration, see these links: