Servant leadership — Why and how your leader should work for you

Historically, effective leadership has been characterized by a command-and-control approach to managing teams and solving problems; power, direction and autonomy was primarily reserved for higher ranks in the organization. Subordinates were encouraged to find a box to sit in and only influence the aspects of the process or company they were assigned to work on – effectively limiting their own creative energy and potential. Although some companies still subscribe to this culture of leadership, many are looking for smarter and more effective ways to manage human resources and processes. They recognize the power and value of untapped human potential. This leadership challenge is particularly relevant for companies operating online – an environment known for its disruptive technological innovation and fierce competition.

In order to navigate this uncertain and demanding terrain, leaders must actively seek out and address challenges and opportunities in and around the organization, while being mindful of the fact that solutions are ultimately implemented by the people they lead. Therefore, a leader should facilitate collaboration, cultivate trust, and remove impediments restraining progress. A leader – in effect – becomes a natural facilitator, a servant leader for his or her team or organization.

The essence of servant leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf, a leading proponent of modern servant leadership, captures the idea by stating that “good leaders must first become good servants”. This prospect may be hard for some to swallow, but the notion of facilitating an environment where people can work as effective and autonomous as possible makes sense. Specifically, a servant leader should be aware, listen emphatically to both expressed and non-expressed concerns; encourage professional and personal development; maintain an intuitive sense of how complex relationships and situations are connected, and build a strong team culture that address company objectives – which ultimately lead to satisfied customers, the lifeblood of the organization.

While most of us tune in to Wii FM (what’s in it for me) every now and then, this form of leadership leaves little room for personal agendas or self-gratification. It also appreciates a broader definition of the customer to include the internal customer – the coworker. There are inherent dependencies between people, departments and functions within an organization. Therefore, one should approach internal requirements with the same level of urgency, integrity and service as one would for the end customer.

The agile leader

Servant leadership goes beyond agile methods like Scrum or Kanban. While it has similarities to the role of a Scrum Master, servant leadership transcends any specific process, role or project management approach. It is an integral mindset, a philosophy, a set of values, a worldview. It cannot be artificially injected into an organization. Rather, it is a vision and matter of organizational culture. It is a practice, and everyone’s invited to participate. No matter which level of the organization one is working in, there is always room for being a servant to others.

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