Servant Leaders are amazing!  There, I said it and I won’t take it back. But what is Servant Leadership?  Put simply, it’s a mindset in which the leadership goal is to serve the team.  It reverses the traditional model of leadership where the team exists to serve the leader.  Servant Leaders put service to the team first and work to develop autonomous, high performing and healthy teams.

A Servant Leader's mission: Creating a collaborative and creative environment

At Stuart we value our Servant Leaders and strive to make servant leadership an ingrained quality in the organisation.  In addition to the stated goals above, they foster and create a safe, collaborative and creative environment. They empower the organisation to innovate through experimentation. They encourage diversity of ideas and solutions and look after the wellbeing of the team. They have the ability to inspire us to reach as high as we can to achieve our goals.  

Servant Leaders manage through influence to achieve credibility and authority, rather than through organisational based power.  As a consequence they promote the overall wellbeing of the people around them.  Other than being amazing and wonderful people, they are the engine that makes an Agile Transformation possible.  

A burning desire to serve others

Obviously, I am not shy about saying I love servant leaders.  But don’t take my word for it.  The world loves them too.  Greats such as Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were all Servant Leaders who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of those around them.  They put the needs, rights and safety of others above their own in order to affect great change.  Their leadership did not come from an institution or through political power.  It came from a charismatic quality from within, a burning desire to make the world a better place and to serve others.  In short, people followed them because they BELIEVED in them.  That is what it means to be a Servant Leader.

The attributes of a Servant Leader

We cannot all be as great as them but we can all be Servant Leaders within our sphere of influence.  So how do we identify Servant Leaders around us?  What attributes do they possess?  Why are they so important and influential in the organisations they belong to?  The answer is that it is because of their qualities and values.  It is less about WHAT they do and more about WHO they are and HOW they do it.  There are very specific characteristics that make one a Servant Leader and I have taken the time to outline 6 that I find most useful and impactful.  There are more of course, but these are the ones that speak to me on a personal level.  These are the ones that I find bring the biggest value and inspire people the most.

  • Service Orientation - Servant leadership is the opposite of managing through power.  The primary focus is to serve and support the needs of those around them.  To empower the team and improve team dynamics.  The Servant Leader is not the team’s assistant. It’s important to note that by ‘service’ what is generally meant is making the ‘good and success of the team’ the number one priority.  In this sense you serve the team by placing their needs and wellbeing ahead of everything else so that they can succeed.  You can do this by combining some practical and discrete activities such as helping the team to remove obstacles and thinking through solutions, with more difficult and nuanced activities like creating a safe and positive environment for the team to flourish.  That means sometimes as a Servant Leader we do a task ourselves.  At other times we act as a catalyst for the team to get things done through coaching, mentoring, and teaching the team how to be self sufficient.  We also protect the team from outside negative influences and work to develop a healthy team dynamic.

  • Empathy - The ability to understand how people feel and to put yourself in their situation.  It allows you to understand people’s motivations, what they need to feel safe and creative.  It guides you as a Servant Leader to identify actions you can take to improve the greater good of the team.  Empathy allows you to make positive change focused on what is important to a team.  It makes it easier to motivate those around you and it builds trust.  The difference between having empathy and not having empathy manifests itself in the difference between responding to a situation and reacting to it.  For example, it’s easy to cast blame on someone for being late to a meeting and to chastise them, but we shouldn’t do that.  Someone with empathy will strive to understand why that person is late and respond appropriately.  It could be that person has a child to take to school and is doing their best to be on time.  If that’s the case that person is probably already stressed out and chastising them would have a negative impact on someone doing their best.  Instead, why not change the meeting time to a time slot that works for everyone?  It’s a small example of how empathy creates a better team dynamic.

  • Being Inclusive - Encouraging diversity of ideas and valuing everyone’s opinion, making sure everyone is heard.  Promoting diversity fosters a more creative environment which results in higher quality and a better developed set of solutions.  There are plenty of statistics that support this.  According to BCG (Boston Consulting Group) a recent study suggested that having a more diverse team leads to higher quality innovation and increased revenue of 19%. An interesting article by McKinsey titled Why Diversity Matters concluded that companies that are more culturally diverse are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors and companies that have more gender diversity are 15% more likely.  A quick Google search will provide additional information on the subject. There is plenty of other research that indicates that diverse companies are more likely to be more innovative than less diverse companies.   This is because being inclusive helps the team to avoid Group Thinking.  Group Thinking occurs when a group’s creativity and individuality is subverted in favor of ‘in the box’ thinking.  When everyone in a room agrees on a solution that could be an indication of a problem.  Maybe the solution was thought up by a manager or leader of the organisation and nobody wants to voice their concerns or offer a differing opinion.  Group Thinking is a result of authoritarian / directive leadership.  Group Thinking encourages teams to ignore potential dangers and pitfalls, thereby leading to poor decision making.  A Servant Leader strives to avoid it by encouraging debate and differing opinions.  A good way to make sure you are being inclusive of everyone’s ideas is to ask and solicit opinions. Within my own team, I will usually start by soliciting the opinion of those who are more reserved and less likely to speak out.  That way I try to ensure that their opinions aren’t biased by those of us (myself included) who have strong opinions and aren’t shy about voicing them.

  • Influence Management - The ability to lead and organise a team through influence.  It also means you have the ability to be influenced by others.  It’s important as an influence manager to be flexible and allow yourself to be guided by the team. People who lead through influence management foster open cooperation,  collaboration and sharing of ideas.  Not only do teams make better decisions, but the sense of empowerment results in teams that hold themselves accountable and to higher standards.  Teams that have a sense of ownership are happier and produce higher quality results.

  • Active listening - The ability to listen and truly understand and remember what is being said and to respond to it appropriately.   It builds trust and establishes a rapport within the team.  When everyone is heard, when everyone’s voice is valued, the team’s dynamic improves and you start building connections.  You increase the knowledge of the team on various topics, and help to identify creative solutions to problems.

  • Mentorship - Servant Leaders often mentor those around them, often leading by example and helping them to think through problems and identify creative solutions.  They provide guidance, motivation and emotional support.  I have had several mentors throughout my career, most of them informally.  One of my mentors has been my mentor for almost 10 years now.  Mentorship relationships have a lasting impact and are a great way to learn and develop.  I have been both a formal and informal mentor and I have always found it to be an incredibly satisfying and valuable experience.

So why is all this important to an organisation but especially to an Agile one?  It is my belief that being a Servant Leader directly supports and empowers the Agile value of Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools.  Additionally, it allows the organisation to develop the agile principles of:

  • Collaboration
  • Support, trust and motivate the people involved.
  • Enable face-to-face interactions
  • Self organizing teams
  • Regular reflections on how to become more effective

What excites me most is when Agile values and the values of an organisation align and I am energized and proud every day to come to work at Stuart.  We hold ourselves to the highest standards which align with and embody what it means to be a Servant Leader.  In the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi we endeavor to  “be the change that you want to see in the world”.  Our Stuart values are below:

    • Start with Humility
    • Build by empowerment
    • Share through cooperation
    • Turn facts into insights
  • Solve the problem, right
  • Think outside the parcel

By now you probably noticed several recurring themes.  Servant Leaders develop trust, empowerment, collaboration, communication, and help the team to self organise and be higher performing in a variety of ways.  The most wonderful thing about being a Servant Leader is that anyone can do it!  You just need to decide it’s who you want to be and start developing the skills.  You do not need anyone’s permission to be a Servant Leader.  Perhaps find a mentor who can help you start or continue your journey.  It does take time and practice and some of the skills required do not come naturally to everyone.  However, the benefits are tremendous for both you and your organisation.  Because I feel so passionately about it, I challenge everyone reading this article to start developing your Servant Leadership skills.  A great book to get you started is “The Servant as Leader” by Robert Greenleaf.  He is considered a thought leader on the subject and believed that Servant Leadership can be more productive than many other styles of leadership.  Just remember that with great power comes great responsibility!

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