Servant Leadership: How to Lead Teams in the 21st Century

In a traditional management model a manager plays the central role and behaves as an assertive leader. In the contrast, his subordinates are treated as the ones who serve the manager. Such a boss-centered approach very often devalues regular employees.

But today it turns out that this approach doesn’t work anymore, especially in such a dynamic and complicated industry as information technology. The lack of qualified people is a constantly growing problem in IT, and it takes a lot of efforts not only to attract talents, but also to retain them. Even if your best employee feels absolutely comfortable at his current place in your company, tomorrow he can get a tempting offer from your competitor and will leave. It means that all the efforts and money invested  in this employee by your company are wasted, not mentioning that it will definitely have a negative impact on your project. Today really good specialists can find a new job with ease, so if you are trying to apply those old school management techniques, which often diminish the role of subordinates, you will only escalate the process of your best people loss.

Fortunately, there is another management approach called servant leadership. It was introduced as far back as in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf in his essay “The Servant as Leader”, and it turned out to be ideally applicable to a new labor market realities.

So what are servant leaders? They are leaders who empower their employees to be efficient and effective within their roles while maintaining a positive sense of wellbeing. Instead of managing for results they design environments that create results, in simple words, they create spaces where people want to work. Skip Prichard gives a short and comprehensive definition for this kind of people: “Servant leaders lead with others in mind”. In fact, the term “servant leader” itself emphasizes that the person in charge leads not for his or her own goals but for a larger purpose.

Let’s take a look at some principles a true servant leader follows. A greater servant leader…

  • Listens to understand. Servant leader is there to hear the employees` points of view and to pay attention to what impedes them from performing their work as best as they can, contributing to the team result. Being able to listen to the needs and wants of employees is critical in fostering a positive relationship.
  • Asks questions. Servant leader is interested in development of his team members. Therefore, he mentors them, not telling directly the right answers, but asking questions in such a manner that the people find the right answers on their own.
  • Persuades, not forces. Unlike traditional manager, servant leader never pushes his ideas and insists on them. He introduces changes and resolves conflicts through discussion and explanation, not coercion. This approach is also known as “Sell, not tell”.
  • Shows empathy. It is important for a servant leader to be able to sense other people’s emotions and feelings. It helps him to set correct expectations for any particular team player at any particular period of time. At the same time a servant leader is goal oriented, so he is interested in having all team members at their best conditions. It means that from time to time a servant leader plays a role of a psychotherapist. And here listening again can help him. Sometimes just listening to a person can help to get him back on track.
  • Values diverse opinions. A servant leader values everyone’s contributions to the common goal and regularly seeks out opinions. He never blames anyone`s idea even if this idea looks dumb and makes no sense. Servant leader would rather thank a person for the idea and try to take all the best from it, asking the author to develop this particular part of the idea.
  • Prioritizes personal and professional development of others. A servant leader is interested in development and growth of his organization. It  is possible only if the best talents comprise the organization. By investing into team members` growth you`re investing in your company’s growth, because over time they will perform better and will make better decisions, if they don’t leave, of course. However, people rarely leave organizations led by true servant leaders.
  • Encourages and motivates people. Motivated people can move mountains. Instead, demotivated people can push your team back and have a negative impact on the whole project or even organization. A servant leader should track the mood of the people in his team and keep them in a positive and alert state. He is the one who inspires others to work together towards a common goal.
  • Protects the team from outside factors. Unfortunately, projects, especially those that are undertaken by large organizations, are full of distractions and negative influence from outside people. This influence demotivates team members, brings chaos and mess into the project. A servant leader is there to remove these obstacles and to keep his people from all the distractions that prevent them from better performing and achieving the goals.
  • Develops other leaders. A servant leader teaches others to lead, providing opportunities for growth and demonstrating by example.  That means that the leader is not always leading, but also is giving up power and deputizing others to lead. It pays off when the organization is growing and the servant leader is not able to run everything on his own anymore. He has to foster trusted people to whom he can delegate responsibilities in order to keep his projects in a good shape.
  • Doesn’t interfere with performing teams. Once the team led by a servant leader achieved a performing stage and when new leaders are fostered in this team, the role of the servant leader changes from active leadership to observation. In fact, it is a true servant leadership. The servant leader offers nothing but a light touch in this case, focusing on two main responsibilities – making sure that the team has everything needed for productive work, and that nothing prevents them from doing this work.
  • Builds communities. A feeling of fellowship with others drives organizations towards achieving their goals. Thus, a servant leader should embrace building community in his organization through sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

To summarize everything said above, a servant leader leads the team in a such a way, that every person views himself as an integral part of the team, understanding and sharing the common goals.

It might seem from this description that a servant leader is a warm and fuzzy person, who only does everything to please the team. But it’s not the case. Don`t forget that a servant leader combines both leader`s and servant`s traits and, as any leader, he is primarily a goal oriented person. He should always do the things that lead to results. It means that from time to time he has to make tough decisions. When some of the listed above principles do not work and prevent the team from getting results, the servant leader would better violate these principles in order to achieve the goal. A servant leader has to be very pragmatic and keep the discipline, because at the end of the day he is the one who is in charge.

Please, share your opinion about servant leadership. Do you practice this approach or you are a follower of  a traditional management model? Maybe you have practiced both approaches and can compare and share pros and cons of both of them? Please, share your experience in comments.

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