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  • Sarah Stewart

What Servant Leadership Means to Me Part 1: Outcomes, Not Intentions

When I first heard of "Servant Leaders" I imagined a literal servant, like the biblical Jesus washing his followers’ feet. Or my old VP serving burgers at a team barbeque. But that is not what Servant Leadership means (not to say those guys aren't also Servant Leaders).

Servant Leadership inverts the conventional leadership model. Instead of driving your employees, assigning them tasks, and judging their results, you give your employees goals and then protect them from interruptions while they fulfill those goals. It’s powerful, and it works beautifully with Agile, but it’s tricky to learn.

In my early career, before I had an opportunity to lead others, I'd had a string of mediocre managers, a few truly terrible ones, and one actual good one. Those managers had some things in common that frustrated me and disrupted my work:

  • They frequently stopped by my desk at random times to check on me.

  • They told me how I should do my work and reviewed it to make sure I’d done it properly.

  • They made me write detailed reports on all of my activities every week.

  • They promoted a culture of competition between me and my peers. I was told I needed to be more “visible.” To succeed I needed to stand out among them, doing more work than they did, at a higher level of quality.

Looking back, I felt patronized. I felt micromanaged. I felt like I was being forced into a culture where I didn’t fit.

I wanted a mentor’s guidance and feedback, not step by step instructions. I wanted confirmation of the quality of my work, not approval of my implementation methods. I wanted to be part of a team where we each helped make each other better.

Back then I was at a decision point in my career: to continue my current path as an engineer or take the leap to become a lead. I thought I could do a lot better than most of the managers I’d had, so made the leap to management. I told myself I would be a better manager. Avoid giving my team members those same experiences. Have a happy team. I could show them!

But right away I stepped into bad habits. I too did “drive-bys” to check on my team. I intended to be helpful – find out who needed help, get them unblocked. I didn’t connect those “drive-bys” with the things my past bosses would do, but in retrospect, I’m sure my team felt the same way as I did when my managers “dropped by” to check up on my productivity. I was naively recreating the same negative culture.

But as I took on more managerial work, I got busy. And, let’s be fair, lazy. Visiting each member of my team every day took time. I had to cut back. But then I quickly discovered that my team didn’t need them. They did better, solved problems a lot more creatively, without my regular input. And I kept my door open if they really needed me, but they decided when. Instead of trying to solve all their problems, I pointed them to resources where they would find the solutions themselves. And in the end, their solutions blew me away.

By being too busy, I’d accidentally stumbled into something. This was long before I’d ever heard of “Agile”, or its underlying concepts, but I had hit the basics of Servant Leadership.

A Servant Leader is someone who trusts their team, empowers them, provides a safe space for them to work, and removes impediments. A Servant Leader lets go of control. That can be really hard. I only “let go” by accident, but I was better for it.

I learned to trust. Trust that my own instincts for hiring smart, capable people were good. Trust that those people know what they’re doing. Trust that they’ll come to me (or some other guide) when they need help.

That’s the basics of what Servant Leadership means. Have faith in the people you hire. Smart people tend to find smart solutions. Smart managers get out of their way

In summary, as a Servant Leader you should:

  • Learn to let go and let your team make their own way

  • Trust your team

  • Resolve and remove the issues that impede your team

  • Stay out of your team’s way, but be there when they need you

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