I was asked to be a part of a panel for a local Product and UX meetup on the topic of “Servant Leadership.” I don’t believe I’m an expert on the subject, but it is an ideal that I aspire to and am grateful for the opportunity to share a little and learn more about the topic from others.
The following is a rough compilation of my thoughts on servant leadership.
1. The Mountain Guide as an Archetype of Servant Leadership
I think one of the best examples of servant leadership comes from mountain guides. They are employed in service to help clients achieve their goal of a successful mountain summit. I first experienced this about ten years ago on a guided summit of Mt. Rainier.
Mt. Guides are by definition in the service of their clients. Their job is to ensure that the client can meet their goal of making a summit. The guides are experienced mountaineers. They are familiar with the environment, hazards, safety, and technical expertise needed to get a group safely up the mountain.
A group of climbers led by guides up Mt. Rainier - June 28, 2019
The guides don’t need the clients to summit the mountain. Having clients makes things much harder and slower for them.
The guides provide all kinds of service as they lead a team up the mountain. They are continually monitoring changes in weather, environmental conditions, the health and wellness of clients, as well as other parties on the mountain to help ensure a successful summit. They freely pass on advice to their team, teach techniques that will help their clients be safe, have more fun, and increase their chances of being successful.
When the team reaches the summit - it is the guide who offers to take their photo. Think of all the images posted on social media of climbers on a mountain summit. The guide did the work to get them there, and then takes the photo of the clients on the summit, for them to get the glory of accomplishing their goal. The client goes home and tells everyone about the mountain that they climbed - without mention of the guides who did all the work to get them there.
A photo of me on the summit of Rainier from 2010. One of our guides took this photo, but I’m sure I shared the photo with others without ever mentioning them or their role in my success. While I have done Rainier additional times without a guide, I would have never had the confidence, knowledge, or experience to have done it in 2010 on my own.
To be a servant leader is to be like a mountain guide. Your personal goals and ambitions are secondary when you are working with your clients. Your clients are your team members, the people you serve, and your job is to take them safely up the mountain that they chose to climb.
A servant leader will monitor the environment and wellness of their team. They will assess risk and make decisions to keep the group safe. They will lead, but they will do it with the team’s best interest in mind. They will pass on wisdom, experience, and skill, and have entertaining stories to keep spirits high. The servant-leader will find joy in helping the team accomplish their goals, and will see their service as a way to achieve their own.
2. Additional Themes of Servant Leadership
Serve vs. Manage
This one seems obvious, but it is difficult in practice. You are asked by the company to be a “manager,” and there are things you need to manage. Shift your thinking from managing people to managing situations, circumstances, environment, and other variables around the people. People don’t want or need to be managed. Serve your people by managing your budget, managing your the schedule, managing the office political bullshit, and unrealistic expectations — you get the idea.
Support and Develop vs. Command and Control
Shift your view of management or your latest promotion from being “in charge” to being a designated support. The only thing you are in charge of is support and develop those who you serve.
Unfortunately, many managers or leaders feel that their position gives them a charge over people and things and that they can force their will on others to accomplish what they want. This style may work for a short period, but it creates a toxic environment and ultimately leads to loss.
Distributed Power vs. Centralized Power
Often, people assume that because ideas or comments come from someone in the hierarchy that those ideas are better or more important than an opinion from someone else. The servant-leader will distribute power and responsibility across the organization. Command and Control leaders will centralize power, requiring decisions and approvals to go through them.
Centralized power creates a “Corporate Aristocracy” where a few people hold all the decision making power in an organization. At first, it may seem like this is needed, but doing so creates bottle-necks, diffuses trust, and puts too much power in the hands of people who probably shouldn’t have it. The people closest to the problem should be the ones empowered to act and decide within their domain.
Like the mountain guide, there is always some decision making and veto power for the leader. If they are doing their job correctly, they will make decisions that help guarantee the safety of the team, but never in their interests.
Give Trust, Don’t Ask for it to be Earned
Trust is something that is given. The idea that trust “must be earned” is flawed in concept, and remains one-sided. One person holds both the ability to give their trust to someone and the ability to judge when and who can be trusted.
Because trust is something that is given, it almost seems passive-aggressive to tell people that they need to earn your trust. Earning trust implies that after some amount of effort, great or small, trust would be implicit and due. That is not how it works. Trust must still be given, no matter the effort put in by an individual to earn it.
It could be argued that trusting the people you lead is the only responsibility that you have as a manager. You don’t do the work, so you have to trust your team to do it. You have to build your trust by guiding and supporting. If you’re expecting your team to earn it, you’re going to have a difficult time.
Hire People, Don’t Hire for Positions
Hire the best people regardless if they are the “perfect fit” for the position you have available. Jobs are transitory, and you need your people to be adaptable and be able to fill several positions over the long haul. How many great people have you passed up because “the person isn’t just right” for the job you have? Or how many people were “overqualified” for what you needed them to do? Can there be such a thing as overqualified in servant leadership?
Be a Key-giver instead of a Gatekeeper
Enable people on your team to do the things they need to do. Give them permission and a budget to carry out the job you hired them to do. Budget is critical; there’s nothing worse than feeling like you have to get VP or executive approval to do anything. Know what your budget is and let employees know what they can spend without raising any red flags.
Spend your time opening doors for your employees and find ways to enable them to do what they think is best. Nothing is worse than a top-down approach where people feel they are carrying out orders, and being judged by someone up the chain for how well they did it. When work is bottom-up, employees become their judges about the quality - everyone wants their ideas executed in the best possible way. When it’s someone else’s idea, especially if it’s different, or not in-line with our expectations we want to get it out of the way as quick as possible so that we can move on to what we feel is essential. If it is someone else’s idea that must be executed, find ways to enable those working on it to leave their mark.
Listen and Understand vs. Assume and Talk
I once had a manager who expressed that he was “great at reading people.” What I experienced was that he was great at “making assumptions” about people. This manager was pretty good at reading people, but when he got it wrong, he got it wrong. These assumptions often created conflict and put employees in real jeopardy when it came to their jobs and their well-being. I was personally affected by these assumptions and ultimately left a job partially due to this.
Listening and understanding are radically different than assuming. You have to cast your assumptions aside, try to have empathy for an individual or situation, and try to see things from their perspective.
The servant-leader avoids assumptions and gets to the truth by listening intently to all sides of an issue.
Foster Autonomy vs. Build Dependency
Enable your team to be autonomous - the less they need you to do their job, the better. The less dependent they feel on you to accomplish daily tasks, the better things will be for you.
You can foster autonomy by giving up decisions that your team think belong to you. Tell them that they are responsible and that you have confidence in them to do the right thing. Also—back them up in their decision, even if you might do things a little differently. You can’t give autonomy and expect things to happen exactly as you would have done it.
Dependency happens when you require people to come to you for all decisions. It also happens when you don’t allow individuals to run with their own ideas. If you must give input and advice on everything you will create a culture where people feel dependent on you for anything that they do.
When this happens, it’s bad for you, and for them. You become a bottle-neck, and you are not allowing your team to do their best work.
3. A Few Things You Can Do Right Now to Exercise Servant-Leadership
Give Up Control
Make a list of things that you are “responsible” for. Give that responsibility explicitly to someone else on your team who wants, and probably should own it. This makes life better for you, and for people on your time.
Balance or Increase Pay
Your job as a manager is to be your employee’s agent and get them the best deal that you can. Corporate HR departments have compensation specialists who you can work with to ensure that your team is getting everything they can. Don’t worry about overpaying someone who is doing a good job. Talk with your employees openly about their compensation, make sure that they are happy with it, and work with them to make it better. Some people don’t like to talk about their pay. They are happy as long as things are going ok for them. It is your job to make sure those people get their share.
Understand Strengths & Weaknesses
Actively position your team on projects and opportunities where their skills get amplified. Seek out training and growth opportunities to strengthen weak areas.
Tell Someone They Are Awesome
We all need positive re-enforcement. People need to know that they are doing good work and that they are valued. If you don’t tell them how great they are, nobody might.
Improve Your Skill
One way to serve your team is to teach them something they don’t know. The only way you can do that is if you keep learning. A manager has a unique position to see broadly across a team and can identify a skill or gap that the team might have. You are probably the best one to fill it. Keep up on industry news, explore the latest trends and pass on what you learn to your teams.
- The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf, 1968. The original essay about servant leadership as a management style.
- Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership Organization dedicated to promoting servant leadership.
- Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. Excellent book covering the topics of servant leadership.
- The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert Sutton. Resource for how to cope when you find yourself in circumstances where servant-leadership is not practiced.