What's a Servant Leader?

January 01, 2019

2 minute read

Servant leadership was originally defined in the 1970s as a departure from traditional leadership:

This (servant leadership) is different from traditional leadership where the leader's main focus is the thriving of their company or organizations. A Servant Leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership inverts the norm, which puts the customer service associates as a main priority. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.1

In software development, servant leadership has seen a renaissance through the adoption of the agile manifesto. A servant leader is a sheep dog for their team, protecting them from outside forces and distractions, so that they can focus on the work at hand.

Sheep Dog in front of Sheep

Being a Sheep Dog

For me, being a servant leader means trusting my team (a group of really smart people) to make reasoned decisions without me. This release of control is the starting differentiator between a traditional command and control leadership style and a servant's approach. In a command and control organization, the team is only as smart as the empowered decision maker. In an organization where leaders serve, the decision making is decentralized, meaning the team's intelligence is pooled.

As an aside, I think that command and control has its place in the world (such as in the military where decisive action matters in seconds and minutes and not hours and days), but in software development, where groups of really smart people are focused on solving complex problems in a sustainable, repeatable manner, I believe servant leadership is king. To contrast against my previous assertion about military leadership styles, Simon Sinek in his book Leaders Eat Last studies a unit from the U.S. Marine Corps, and explains very clearly how their leaders act as servant leaders, thereby building exceptional levels of trust, and resulting in better teams.

In this post I have defined servant leadership in high level ideas and concepts. In researching other explanations of servant leadership, I found there are hardly any real examples. I wanted this post to serve as a starting point, a knowledge building block for my essays on leadership. If the rest of these posts are focused on anything in particular, then they'll be explorations of servant leadership, so starting here with a definition feels right. But since I had a hard time finding real world examples of servant leadership, I want to illustrate these concepts with my experiences, so you can see the stark contrast yourself.

This next week I am going to focus on doing just that. Read about my own experience next in Borrowed vs. Owned Time.