What is Servant Leadership?

Sharlene McKinnon
Dec 2, 2019 · 4 min read

Servant leadership is about trusting and empowering people. Unfortunately, the concept of servant leadership is still foreign for many managers who struggle to understand what it means to let go of the control of a team.

I see power struggles between managers and teams all the time. This is the number one blocker to success: the team knows what they need to do and how to do it… but a manager is unwilling to step away and relinquish control. This makes me wonder: Why even go through the time and effort of finding great people if no one lets them be great?

In a worst-case scenario, overbearing management robs the team of their autonomy and creates a bottleneck that slows down the flow of work. Ultimately, the team becomes frustrated, passively helpless, or leaves because they can’t do what they do best: build software.

At one 1000+ person company that I consulted for, this “overbearing management” was the CEO. He wanted to be involved in every design decision, every copy decision, every hiring decision, every sale, and be in every single meeting.

And, when he was away doing CEO stuff, the development machine ground to a complete halt. This created a lot of stress and anxiety for employees who were in an awkward position because they had been conditioned to not make decisions without the CEO. Plus, they felt they were unable to give this person feedback because he was… a CEO.

So, what exactly does a servant leader do? A servant leader is nearly invisible, and stays out of the way of a team until needed. Really good leaders are able to anticipate issues or team needs before they become a problem.

Servant leadership is not about being an all-powerful king or queen, it’s not about building a network of control systems, it is not about operationalizing people, and it is certainly not about taking credit for the work of anyone on the team.

Servant leadership is about providing vision and direction. It is about removing the things that get in the way of people doing their best work. It is about using valuable experiences to coach and truly help people shine.

And, if any of this means staying out of the way of the team… then get out of the way.

Servant Leaders Avoid Turf Wars

What is a turf war, you ask? A turf war is created when two or more people struggle for dominance over decisions, code, or team positions.

Turf wars undermine success because instead of putting energy and effort towards developing good code or evolving a product in the market, individuals or teams embroiled in a turf war focus on undermining each other.

This is massively unhealthy and I’ve never seen a team come out of a turf war intact. Bad behaviours like information hoarding, ego posturing, creating drama, and hero syndrome all stem from turf wars and act to erode collaboration in an environment full of ulterior motives.

On a team that I worked with many years ago, one “rival” project manager periodically loaded a virus onto any unlocked and unattended computer to disrupt development on a product feature that he did not agree with.

In retaliation, our product manager stopped sharing development information until after code was handed over to customers; in many cases, this left parts of the product open to security vulnerabilities and subsequently a continual stream of unnecessary patching.

All the energy and effort spent infighting opened the company up to lawsuits and dissatisfied customers. Inevitably, this led to another company deftly stealing its market share and shortly after, this company went out of business. Many months later, I saw the virus-installing-manger at the grocery store and he mentioned that he was still looking for a new job.

Servant Leaders Help People Sparkle

Servant leaders recognize that turf wars and bad behaviours are blockers to success and will do whatever they can to prevent or mitigate. They understand that there is tremendous value in knowledge sharing, collaboration, and open communication and will nurture these skills on a team.

Good leadership is about trusting and enabling people to truly sparkle. Servant leaders find ways to give everyone on a team a positive voice. When teams are empowered, software is developed at a consistent pace and team members are happy to plug away and do what they do best: use technology to solve problems. People grow as technologists and because of this, you have gentle but natural attrition as the team changes.

On one particularly difficult project, one of my co-workers said to me: “During an expedition, we need to have one foot on the bank [of a river] so we don’t get swept away by the current. The leader of the expedition should remind you to keep your foot on this bank every once in a while.”

To me, this is a servant leader.

Thanks to Chris dePage

Sharlene McKinnon

Written by

Geek. Multiplier. Leader & Mentor. Digital Humanities. I work at the intersection between humans + technology. analog.software.

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