How to Become a Great Servant Leader

The key to effective servant leadership is building a culture that makes power moves unnecessary.

Written by Omar Rabbolini
Published on Jun. 28, 2020
How to Become a Great Servant Leader
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The theory behind servant leadership is pretty straightforward: Instead of directing your team like a general commands troops in battle, you should attend to your team members’ needs so that they can deliver excellence. In other words, your job is to remove any impediments that hold your team’s performance back, smoothing out the road to success for each person in your group. In the real world, though, that’s only the first part of the equation for any manager. The second part deals with delivering your team’s business objectives, and it’s your job to make that happen efficiently.

In the best-case scenario, you’re able to translate these objectives into a plan that the team hops on board with and that allows you to just focus on fulfilling their needs. More likely, though, you’re going to encounter friction between the business’ needs and the team’s goals, and that’s when things get complicated.

I have encountered this scenario often enough in the software industry to make me question whether the servant leadership approach is even feasible. For example, let’s consider a common problem: a component is crucial to the business, but nobody wants to maintain it. Maybe it’s built on old or obsolete technology, or it’s been so poorly maintained that, over time, it has turned into a behemoth of spaghetti code. But if nobody wants to touch that component, then who should work on it? Should you make the decision unilaterally, possibly ruffling people’s feathers? Or is it better to delay making changes, perhaps indefinitely, to avoid upsetting the team?

That’s when the going gets tough. During these times, a manager may be tempted to switch back to a power leadership style, maybe even temporarily, so that they can deliver their business objectives. Doing so damages the team’s trust in a style of leadership that appears to choose whatever approach suits its interests best. They may also fear that the manager will prioritize personal gain over the team’s success. With this erosion of trust, the whole servant leadership approach starts to fall apart.

The trick, therefore, is to avoid power moves. But how can a manager avoid making power moves when it comes to pushing through unpopular decisions? Ultimately, it all boils down to building the right structure in the team to make power leadership redundant at all levels. Accomplishing these goals sets a great servant leader apart from the rest.

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Building a Smart Team

In order to make power leadership redundant, your team must be able to deliver business objectives even when they’re unpopular. The first step toward this goal is to ensure that the team understands all business objectives. Just presenting objectives as they are isn’t sufficient. Rather, you need to translate them into something relatable, and they also need to be flanked by a strategy and plan for their implementation.

Perhaps it’s easier to explain this through an example. Let’s say that you’re working for a SaaS company that makes accounting software, and you’re leading the product development team. One of your business objectives might be to increase revenue by 45 percent year-on-year.

Your team is composed of engineers, designers, and product managers. They sweat over the technical details, code, and user experience daily. This is their bread and butter. A 45 percent revenue increase may not mean much to them in terms of their day-to-day. They might even think it’s got nothing to do with their work. After all, it’s marketing’s job to engage customers, and sales’ job to close sales. Where does product development come into the picture?

Of course, the reality is very different. User experience drives customer retention, and the security of your platform is likely what makes them choose you over your competitors. The 45 percent increase in revenue, therefore, probably depends upon UX improvements, achieving certain industry standards for security certifications, and perhaps creating premium features that you can sell on top of your current offerings.

Now who should lead translating these goals for the product team? The traditional power approach would call for the manager to work on that, perhaps in conjunction with managers from other departments. Once they’ve translated the goals for the team, they’re handed over with the expectation of their immediate execution.

This can easily lead to a scenario in which the team feels powerless because they had such a limited say in the work that needs to be done. Worse, this approach stifles creativity and innovation. The people who are closest to the product, and who really understand its ins-and-outs, end up being excluded from the process of defining its roadmap. Not only does this approach risk alienating the team, but it also limits the exchange of ideas happening around the product.

A better approach, and one more in line with servant leadership, is to involve the team in this “translation” process. Their involvement might even include setting up cross-functional task forces with other departments to tackle what it means to increase revenue. Salespeople, marketeers, UX designers and engineers could all comprise these task forces, working together to produce a sensible strategy.

Now, not everybody on your team would need or have to participate in these task forces. More importantly, they shouldn’t be doing the task force full time, or else no other work will get done. At this point, your role as a servant leader becomes important.

As a servant leader, you should be aware of your team members’ current skill level, alongside their career goals and aspirations and give them exposure to the right work to allow them to achieve these goals. In the scenario above, this probably means choosing the more seasoned engineers and UX designers to work in these cross-functional task forces. You want to make sure they’re filled with those team members who have enough experience with the product to be able to sensibly shape it.

That doesn’t mean precluding the junior engineers from participating in the project, though. Keep in mind that they’re probably better suited to working on simpler endeavors first. This way, they can build a better understanding of the product that will make them adept at future cross-functional participation.

See what we’re doing there? We’re really killing two birds with one stone. On one hand, we’re giving the people on our team an opportunity to grow by doing work that would normally be done by somebody “above their level” in a traditional setting. On the other, we’re ensuring that they buy into the plan for hitting that 45 percent revenue goal by allowing them to define their own role.

Meanwhile you, as the servant leader, take a step back. You remain the director, but stay behind the curtain. You’re there to give advice and guide your team when they get stuck, but otherwise let them do work that usually would fall onto your plate. You’re no longer the chef in the kitchen, but rather an assistant to the next generation of Gordon Ramsays (perhaps sans the swearing). You’re still responsible for your team’s output, but your trust in the work they do drives your management style now.

Taking on this role means you’re probably going to end up doing more menial tasks that a traditional leader would delegate, such as creating reports. Fewer critical tasks that you’d traditionally be expected to do will occupy your time. You might even end up seeming dispensable.

Does this last thought scare you? If it does, let’s look at what’s in it for you when you adopt this approach, then.

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What the Leader Gains

Although you might end up doing more admin work, it’s also true that it shouldn’t really consume much of your mental energy. You’ll also likely be able to complete it more quickly than the more junior members of your team. As a result, you’ll probably end up with more time to spend on your own professional growth. For instance, you can stay up-to-date with the latest trends in the industry for your particular discipline. You can also devote more time to thinking about the longer-term goals of the company and its future direction.

Crucially, though, you can’t be fooled into thinking that you’re now completely disposable. In fact, the scariest pitfall of the approach proposed is exactly that: the manager, feeling they’re redundant, steps back too much. Your team still needs you. They need your guidance and support as they learn how to do this new work, which might be a difficult adjustment for some to make. If you leave people to their devices, they might end up making decisions that are less than ideal.

As manager, you should keep an eye on the team’s progress and the work they deliver. Remember to challenge them when their results are too far from your expectations. This approach doesn’t mean micromanaging or questioning everything they do, though. Instead, the heart of servant leadership is about setting up a process where progress is consistently reviewed, and you’re able to ask the right questions to ensure risk has been properly assessed. After all, any change proposed for a product is the result of many micro-decisions that carry the risk of compromising existing functionality. You need to understand the thought process behind these decisions to ensure that the whole solution has been well thought through.

To go back to our previous example, let’s say that the cross-functional work force determined that one of the pain points for customer retention is the log-in procedure for your product. Some users find it too convoluted and end up choosing a competitor. There are different approaches to simplify the log-in procedure, and some carry a risk of compromising the security of the system. Has the team considered these risks? What’s their mitigation? You should ask this sort of question during a review meeting to ensure the proposal has been thought through.

And remember, you’re there to ask questions, not provide answers. You’re trying to develop your team, not showing them that you know better, even when you actually do. Let them come to you for advice, but allow them to come up with their own thoughts first.


Parting Thoughts

In summary, what sets a great servant leader apart is her ability to create a great environment. A great environment fosters the next generation of servant leaders, offers each team member control of their future, and gives them all a say in setting the direction for the team and maybe even the company as a whole. With more buy-in from team members, achieving business goals becomes a true team effort. Power moves designed to force somebody to take up less desirable tasks become either rare or totally unnecessary.

As team members get involved in effectively running the show, the leader is then freed up to focus on other tasks. Although it’s true that some admin work she’d have previously delegated now falls on her plate, this is unlikely to consume the bulk of her time. Instead, she can focus on her own career growth and keeping abreast of the competition.

One could argue that running a team this way requires a certain maturity of the team members. Although this is certainly true, the counterargument here is that the best way to foster such maturity is to give people the opportunity to own the work they’re doing and take responsibility for it. What better way to do so than delegating meaningful work?

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