Exploring Servant Leadership: Learning to Inspire and Inform (Part II)

In Part I we examined the problems with Boss Leadership and some of the undesirable consequences that follow.

In this article, we’ll explore an alternative, Servant Leadership. We learn what’s different about it and some of its benefits.

In Part III we’ll look at the consequences of Servant Leadership and directly compare and contrast it with Boss Leadership.

So, let’s explore Servant Leadership and see what’s new.

Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership and who does what

If Boss Leadership can be characterised as Command and Control then Servant Leadership can be called Inspire and Inform.

With Servant Leadership there’s still a hierarchy but with two crucial differences:

Organisations tend to be much flatter with many fewer layers

Inside the organisation it doesn’t feel like a hierarchy – as we’ll see the roles and responsibilities of servant leaders are very different

With Servant Leadership the purpose of the hierarchy is inverted and the goal of the “boss” is to serve the team (rather than the reverse). Instead of “boss” we call them “team leader” (or similar) to put the emphasis on leadership activities rather than management artefacts.

Instead of issuing instructions (“Do this. Tell me what you’ve done.”) the leader asks questions (“How can we get there? What do you need?”).

(Note that we’re not just playing with language here: by “team” we mean just that – a “team” is not a group of workers with a boss – it operates in a fundamentally different way. There are many “teams” and “team leaders” out there who are not practising Servant Leadership. As with many innovations, people often latch on to and appropriate language without understanding. I’ve seen many an “agile” “lean” “team” that were none of these!).

Notice from the diagram that some things are the same as Boss Leadership: the leader still sets the direction of the team and team are still working to achieve outcomes. But nearly everything else operates differently. The philosophy is “inspire and inform”: the leader’s goal is to inspire the team to do their best work, to help and support them and remove obstacles from their path, to grow their skills through experience and the servant leader’s teaching and guidance.

There’s a really important difference with Servant Leadership: the servant leader and their team work as one. “work” and its management are combined; they are not separated. Everyone in the team (including the leader) works on their challenge together, they unite to all do the “work” and this means that the leader and everyone else “mucks in” with necessary contributions, even if some are boring and menial.

The team and their servant leader sit together every day, they visualise their work live on the wall and they communicate face-to-face every day. This co-location is necessary to maximise the effectiveness of the team and minimise delays (a principal source of waste). Meetings are kept as short as possible and take place where the work happens rather than in a separate meeting room.

The philosophy is ‘Inspire and Inform’: the leader’s goal is to inspire the team to do their best work, to help and support them and remove obstacles from their path, to grow their skills through experience and the servant leader’s teaching and guidance.

The team only create as many artefacts as they minimally need to both get the job done and communicate progress with others. Rather than writing reports and briefings, they use daily stand-ups, regular retrospectives and bring stakeholders to the work whenever possible. If any activity isn’t real work or directly enabling real work then the team work ruthlessly to eliminate it.

The servant leader spends most of their time with the team studying the work (without getting in its way) and listening and understanding what is going on on the ground. Their goal is to help the team track and measure progress, identify obstacles, remove those they can, help the team generate solution options, resolve conflicts and build trust. They also protect and shield the team from external distractions so that they can focus and deliver.

With Servant Leadership, the team are the most important, not the leader. The servant leader aspires to make each member of the team feel important and valued. This isn’t delivered through fine words and promises. Instead the servant leader demonstrates each team member’s importance through the actions they take, their attitude and way they interact with everyone.

The team are in control of “how” they work and have the freedom to innovate, try things out, learn what works and fail on a small scale. The approach is Safe-Fail rather than the very expensive Fail-Safe alternative.

Of course, the leader must provide some boundaries and needs to work with the team to de-risk their experiments. But there’s a key departure here: the team make as many decisions as they can themselves. The leader encourages this and arbitrates only as needed. Over-ruling the team is a last resort and almost always a sign of leadership shortcomings (or extreme circumstances and/or time-constraints).

The servant leader’s ultimate goal is to work hard to no longer be needed by their team

The servant leader stays outside the main flow of the work. Instead of “Everything must go through me” the thinking is “Everything must run well without me”. The servant leader’s ultimate goal is to work hard to no longer be needed by their team – to do themselves out of a job so that they can first focus on strategic and wider concerns and then in time safely move on to new challenges.

A servant leader is no longer needed when their team is mature, self-measuring, self-improving, self-correcting, has good judgement and has learned how to deliver autonomously and ask for the right help from the right people. In the face of difficult and changing conditions and circumstances this may never happen.

Indeed it can only happen at all where a high level of trust exists so that the leader can rely on the team to make good decisions without them. Boss Leadership never leads to this: it breeds and encourages a growing dependency of the team on their boss.

Isn't it risky to give a team so much power?

A key consequence of Servant Leadership is the removal of the risky concentration of power in a few individual superstar “bosses”. It’s replaced by a lower-risk decision-making process that leverages a far wider pool of knowledge and experience.

Even so, the servant leader still has a strong role providing checks and balances. Indeed this is actually stronger than with Boss Leadership because:

The servant leader is part of the team and very close to the work.

Feedback is immediate:

The leader is aware and can intervene before a report is written or a meeting called or a status update shows a deviation from the plan. The leader and their team constantly deal in prevention and cure of problems when they occur or before they start, instead of treating their symptoms weeks later.

The servant leader will make difficult decisions when necessary and can over-rule the team although this must be rare or something is seriously wrong:

Because of the high degree of trust and empowerment of the team to make most decisions, these occasions are actually far less controversial than with Boss Leadership where teams often feel completely disempowered, helpless and disengaged; breeding resentment.

The servant leader retains responsibility for strategy, ensuring effective coordination, ensuring effective communication, facilitating collaboration within the team and forecasting longer-term challenges beyond the team’s “event horizon”.

While the team should always have collective responsibility for their actions, the leader can still be solely accountable for delivering the desired outcomes:

In practice it can be very difficult to introduce shared accountability into existing organisations and it may be problematic for legal reasons*.

However, if sole accountability is chosen then this accountability must include delivering outcomes through a trust-building team-enabling Servant Leadership approach. In short, it isn’t just delivering results, how matters.

In Part III we’ll look at the consequences of Servant Leadership and directly compare and contrast it with Boss Leadership.

As mentioned in Part I, there are many definitions of Servant Leadership and a reference for further reading worth a look is The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Good luck exploring and establishing Servant Leadership in your own organisation. Remember, change starts at home so why not first change the way you are leading as an example to others.

*Some countries have well-intentioned laws about sole accountability. It is understandable why they do this because people are taught that “heads must roll” – despite the fact that firing someone is actually to release them of any further responsibility. In fact team-based accountability can be far stronger. In the face of “we stand and fall together” people collaborate much more, keep each other in line and become much more creative.
Posted in Decision-Making, Leadership.

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