What is the servant leadership philosophy? In this article, I'll share my experiences with applying what I believe to be the fundamental concepts: empowerment, transparency, collaboration, and adaptation.
I've spent plenty of years in command and control structures and understand the pros and cons of dictatorial management styles. Back in 2001, I accepted a position at McDATA to help lead the acquisition of a small storage software startup in San Jose. After the transaction closing, I spent a considerable amount of time with the product and engineering teams and learned about a software development methodology called XP. The acquired company's processes were vastly different from the waterfall models followed at McDATA. From that point forward, I knew our SDLC had to change and hoped to infuse iterative software development into McDATA.
I didn't realize I was missing some huge pieces of the puzzle since Agile processes are about a cultural transformation; one I was not yet equipped to drive forward.
Fast forward to 2013, a position at Rally Software, and an Agile itch I needed to scratch for some time. I learned why I hadn't been successful at McDATA convincing the stakeholders on the merits of Agile. At Rally, I was in the presence of experts and absorbed as much information and took as many classes as possible. I felt like Neo plugging into the "Matrix" to learn kung fu. While technology and process are critical, I discovered Agile was about people and more importantly, a servant leadership state of mind.
The servant leadership philosophy
I like to define the servant leadership philosophy as a set of behavioral values and characteristics of a company or, how we agree to interact with one another. My experience shows me a single individual can demonstrate servant leadership, but it takes an entire organization to make it genuine. Accountability is also critical since you have to reward the valued behaviors and weed out the ones that don't work.
There's a ton of literature to be found on the formal principles of servant leadership. There are a few essential beliefs for me, empowerment, transparency, collaboration, and adaptation, and I've included thoughts on each. I know there are more attributes of servant leadership, so I don't want to discount the ones not listed. Google "servant leadership" and you'll find a deluge of information on the topic.
Imagine hiring bright people to solve difficult problems and structuring an organization to help them get their jobs done. It requires a clear business vision and strategy as well as knowing which products to build and why. Organizing around this level of clarity enables autonomy which leads to empowerment.
Tell people and teams the "what," provide mentoring and coaching, and let them figure out the "how."
How often do people in an organization share an event that didn't go well? Are they thrown under the bus? And, do they own it and have a supportive environment to help clean it up? Trust, vulnerability, transparency, and accountability are vital traits of servant leadership. Do you and your company embrace these qualities?
I characterize an organization's overall behavior as either management by conflict or collaboration. I always ask myself, how do I want to show up today for work? I choose collaboration as conflict leaves people the options of fight or flight. I can't think of a more stressful situation to be in for 8+ hours each day and expect people to do their best work.
Disagreement is part of the collaboration process although it can't be the primary way an organization operates.
One of my mottos is inspect and adapt, everything, always. Not only does this include project and iteration level of work but individual hard and soft (EQ) skills. I believe improvement is the key to personal and professional success.
It only takes embracing a few essential characteristics of servant leadership get you to a whole new way of leading and working with people. Anyone at any level can adopt these principles since all of us have centers of responsibility and influence. Impact your corner of the world and watch the fruit of your efforts blossom.
Comments, questions, or corrections?? Let me know!