Servant Leadership

This is a topic I stumbled across long after I’d established what my values and intentions were in leadership, and I found myself feeling immediately at home with the concept.  Over time, I’ve found this term creeping into sufficiently common use that I can offer it as a description of what kind of leader I choose to, and aspire to be, and I find it is sometimes understood – and often looked up, and then understood.

It’s possible that it’s obvious from my other posts that this is how I prefer to be and act, but it’s also possible that this is a new term to someone reading this blog.

Before I provide a link or two to learned articles on the subject, I’m going to explain what it means for me.

I value myself at least partly based on what I can do for other people.  It makes me happy to help others, and it makes me happy to see others do well.  This doesn’t mean I lack the ability or desire to be competitive – play me at board games and you’ll see some competitiveness – but it does mean that I get a kick out of seeing my team do well, whoever I perceive my team to be.  That sometimes – often, hopefully – includes the leadership of that team above me on an engagement.  I call this heart.

It doesn’t mean that I’m a soft touch.  I want the team to do well; if that means that the best thing for the bulk of the team is that someone within the team leaves, that is what I will attempt to achieve.  I usually try to find a way to turn that person around, repurpose them, or otherwise get a result which is good for them as well, but in the final analysis, I can fire people, and I have.  It’s the hardest thing to do, but leadership isn’t about doing only the easy things.  I call this character.  This is also what I would rely on if someone in my team acted out a prejudiced *-ist attack on anyone to my knowledge.  A team needs a conscience, with sufficient teeth to matter.

Sometimes I have to protect my team.  A leader should shower the praise on their team that he receives from outside, but criticism should stop with the leader.  This does not mean that the team members are immune from criticism, or feedback, but it means that the leader should be the one to pass on that message, in the way which will give most benefit to the individual, and which will cause least avoidable damage; and the leader should be shielding his team from direct attack from outside.  I call this courage.  I’d like a better name for it, but when I want to mentally tick off the list, that’ll do.

I want my team to do well, so when I’m leading a team, I want to find out what things are getting in the way of them doing well, and get them out of the way.  Enabling people at a basic level is a key attribute of any manager: giving people the tools they need to get on with the job, always remembering that tools can be physical, software, intellectual and emotional.  Helping a socially awkward computer programmer (stereotype warning!) find some emotional intelligence and insight into the people around them can improve not just their productivity (as much as getting them a faster computer for compiling code), but it can improve far more that can’t be measured with numbers. Coaching and cajoling people, offering feedback and providing opportunities to learn and grow: these are the ways a leader can transform the effectiveness of their team. What’s getting in their way might be their ability to make decisions within the scope of their job.  Like many other things, making the right decision gets easier with practice and examples.  Empowering people isn’t about giving all of them unlimited sign off authority instantly, but empowering them to make the decisions they need to for a productive and happy working life – *and* – is a great way to get engaged and committed, enthusiastic contributors.  This can take the form of permitting them to flex their start times to something which works better for them.  It can be permitting them to choose to work remotely.  It can be keeping the organisation at arms length while a self-forming Agile team goes through the stages before “performing”.  All of this is still enabling to me, although somewhere in the middle for some people that switches to empowering.  I just view the whole thing as “removing barriers that stop people doing their best”.

The last attribute is foresight.  Some people find this easy, but I tend to the view that the ones who are superb at this don’t do a lot of the other things you need to do.  Nevertheless it is a necessary task.  All the enablement you can offer is not going to bring about the changes you need to deliver unless the direction is clear, and that’s especially hard to find in operational teams; when you’re leading change it’s usually a bit easier.  You can do this poorly and the change can still be delivered, but when you do it well you supercharge the team’s ability to deliver.  The larger the change, the bigger the focus on this attribute.  If you have this, but can’t communicate it, you’re going to at least make some good decisions.  If you have this and can communicate it, you can provide people with a vision of the future that can invigorate and even inspire them.

It’s a tall order, and it needs to be worked on every day.


Some links to useful articles:’s take on what servant leadership is

A really good book by an examplar on the topic

Wikipedia’s definition of Servant Leadership



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