The importance of servant leadership

4 minute read

A leadership philosophy by Robert K. Greenleaf first introduced in the essay "The Servant as Leader" published in 1970 that I like to apply in work and everyday life. In growing, fast paced engineering cultures I find it to be a critical philosophy to apply and do well, but often find it's misunderstood...

A Simple Scenario

There are two competitors. At the first, problems and decisions are solved and made only by certain people in leadership. At the second, everyone in the organisation is empowered, solving problems, making decisions.

Who would win? Who would you bet on?

What Is Servant Leadership?

For me, it's simply about improving performance allowing people to deliver the organisation's goals and strategies. Understanding that as a single person/leader I can only do so much... I can only scale so far! But build and grow a team of leaders and we'll do more by orders of magnitude.

I measure my own sucess by reminding myself of the following... if I were to suddenly, magicly disappear and the team (after the shock, if any, of me disappearing) could not only maintain but continue to improve their performance and way of working, then I've been a successful leader. Simple.

What Servant Leadership Isn't...

Just to cover off a few misconceptions, servant leadership isn't about being an easy or soft leader unable to make decisions, or literally "serving" people... doing their work. Nor does it mean you won't have to make difficult decisions or any decisions at all. It's far more complex and challenging than simply being "nice" (not that I'm adverse to being nice! Everyone should be whether at work or not).

Why Isn't Everyone Doing It?

It may not be suited to all contexts (usually my first answer to many topics!). But it also requires the right cultural environment and it's difficult to do well.

The aim is to get the best out of those around you by putting them before yourself, building trust... and inspiring, empowering, supporting, and guiding in order to build a highly skilled team able to make effective decisions. It's by no means an easy philosophy to learn/apply as it heavily relies on empathy, observation, awareness, influence, foresight and putting trust in others. I do find it a more challenging, but at the same time a more enjoyable and rewarding form of leadership.

Self Guidance

These are some of my own realisations that I like to regularly reflect on as guidance.

  • A leader's availability/capacity (or lack of) should not block, slow or stall progress
  • The further decisions are made from where they need to be, the poorer they will be
  • The further decisions are made from where they need to be, the slower they will be
  • A single point of failure (not just technical, but human too) can cause an entire system to stop
  • "Two heads are better than one"

I'm always looking to reduce delay and single points of failure in any system as they can have a huge impact on a business. So in situations where a decision has been delayed, or I've been a dependency in the decision making process I always ask "why were the individuals/team unable to make a decision?"

  • Safety - did they feel "safe" and trusted to make a decision? If not, then why? Do we truly have trust? How do we culturally treat mistakes? Do we have a culture of blame or a culture of learning?
  • Empowered - did the they feel they were able or allowed to make such a decision? Why not? Are they best placed to make the decision? What's the cost of delaying a decision or throwing responsibility to others?
  • Competent - did they feel confident, experienced and skilled to make a decision? If not then what do we need to do so that they do?

None of the above means that individuals/teams go rogue, or make decisions that suit themselves. If done well servant leadership should encourage quite the oposite, so that people understand how to make effective decisions together.

Servant Leadership benefits in examples...

  • A team comes to me to make a decision around frontend architecture options. Am I best placed to? No. Do I have the necessary knowledge or involvment relative to those doing the work? No. I make decision, possibly a poor one, impacting our ability to deliver frontend features and lowering team morale. Alternatively, rather than make a decision myself, could I guide and facilitate the team to make a better decision. Yes! Is the outcome likely to be better? Most likely.
  • The team need to make a decision fast but I'm on holiday/in meetings/at lunch/sick etc... Do they heavily rely on me so wait until I'm back to make a decision? If yes, then I'm single handedly blocking progress. Or do they feel confident, empowered and prepared enough to make a decision? If not, then I'm failing as a leader, am a dependency, single point of failure and impacting effective progress.
  • We discuss a problem. I make a decision (a terrible decision). No one speaks up through either not feeling safe/empowered to, or by lacking experience/exposure to such decision making. Am I human? Yes. Will I make mistakes? Yes. Alternatively, the other team members are experienced, empowered and skilled in such situations through continuous learning, and feeling safe and trusted, they point out the failings in my decision. We collectively make a better decision... disaster averted!