Deliberately practice servant leadership and why it’s hard!

Jose Lima
Jose Lima
Feb 13, 2018 · 3 min read

Around 6 months ago, Dan North visited Redgate and spoke to us about this idea of servant leadership and a few stories surrounding it. It all made perfect sense, it all resonated with how we believed we should lead and treat people but it was quite easy to find examples of times when we weren’t doing that so well. Read on if you would like some insight about a time where it didn’t go so well and how we managed to eventually figure out why!

So the first step many of us took was to read “Turn the ship around!” by David Marquet which tells us the story of how leadership changed in a US Navy ship based around the concept of servant leadership.

It felt natural and most of the time something obvious to do — after all we are nice people that enjoy working with each other but rather than telling you all the success stories I thought I’d tell you about one time that it didn’t work so well, and hope that helps you in case you are on a similar journey to ours.

After a 2 month sabbatical I returned to work just before the Christmas period and after some time playing catch up we had to make some decisions about our focus for the first 3 to 6 months of 2018. One of the suggestions on the table felt a lot like a decision or an output measure rather than an outcome. Initially, I was happy to disagree and commit because I didn’t want to be blocking the team on progress but the more I thought about it the more I disagreed or in fact realised that there was something missing.

Luckily, as the journey towards being servant leaders was spread across the organisation I sat down with someone outside our team and explained my frustration. This was the turning point for me personally, as the person I was talking to could take an unbiased/unemotional approach to the situation and talk theory to me:

  • constraints?
  • goals/aims?

It was fairly clear that it wasn’t anything personal getting in the way, after all I had a pretty good relationship with the person making that decision but it became very clear that I wasn’t being told the constraints or what the goals/aims of this experiment were. Or rather, I missed them, because I’d been away for 2 months and a lot of talk happened face-to-face (:thumbs-up:) rather than on Slack/email.

So after chatting through those constraints and goals/aims I was actually quite happy to disagree and commit — something that eventually all of us do at one point or another in our work life. It just didn’t seem obvious at the time and because we are fairly inexperienced at this new servant leadership style we failed to see the obvious.

By being explicit about those two points can get you a long way, and I think disagreeing and committing is actually a really healthy situation amongst teams — we all have different views of the world but we can’t just forever discuss about how to best move forward: sometimes it’s just better to try and see how it goes.

We are still in the early days of this but we are seeing some results mostly around the way we shape conversations and also the way we delegate or let people take charge on certain initiatives. Being deliberate about goals and constraints and actively calling out when someone or something isn’t living up to our expectations of servant leadership has helped us identify where we can improve and how we can be better servant leaders around Redgate.

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