How to Manage with Servant Leadership

Servant leader. That sounds pretty much like a contradiction in terms, but it is a profoundly important idea. Indeed, I’d argue that servant leadership the single most valuable approach to leadership. And it’s an approach that no leader can afford to ignore.

To understand why, we need to ask a crucial question…

What is the Job of a Leader?

·         Is it to lead?

·         To be out front?

·         To have people follow you?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Perhaps the job of a leader is to help their followers succeed. After all, managers don’t win games: teams do. And generals don’t win wars: armies do. This is the philosophy behind servant leadership. Your job as a leader is to serve the people who follow you. To give them what they need — whether it’s motivation, project management tools or even donuts for breakfast — in order to achieve their goals.

The Stages of a Team and the Roles of a Leader

The servant leadership model is, of course, not the only model of leadership. It is one among many. So, it’s instructive to look at a number of situations and examine what your team will need in each. That way, we can identify what servant leadership is, and when it’s right for your team.

And, arguably, if you are consistently employing a leadership style that meets your team’s needs, then you are constantly serving them.

New Team: New Leader

A good place to start is where new teams begin: at the beginning. A new team comes together, and they have a new team leader — you.

Your job is to get them working together as quickly and as efficiently as you can. This means being very clear with each person, what their task is and how they need to go about it. What your team needs most at this stage is clarity, confidence and the feeling that they can be useful.

So, the way that you are delivering servant leadership at this early stage is by providing a safe space for people to start to contribute. This also gives your team members a chance to get the measure of one another and to start building some working relationships.

Dealing with Conflict and Challenge: An Assertive Leader

But, as people start to work together, and they get a sense of the job at hand, personalities will begin to emerge. The more assertive individuals will jockey for position and may even start to challenge your leadership.

The less confident people, however, will find this uncomfortable. So, to serve them, you need to pick up on unwanted social dynamics, and deal with them promptly. This is also important, because some will try to test and challenge your leadership. You need to demonstrate that you are confident in your role as leader.

The other way you can serve the whole team is to keep them focused on the work that they need to do. A sense of common purpose and a growing feeling of achievement will help people feel good about themselves and their role in the team.

Creating Processes and Practices: A Pragmatic Leader

As the social tensions finish playing out, you’ll start to notice the team becoming more effective. You’ll also see people becoming far more confident in their individual roles. At this point, you won’t serve them well by interfering too much, and they don’t need you to offer much by way of instruction.

So, what does the servant leader do at this stage? You find and implement the practices and processes that will support your team in doing their work even more efficiently. Often this can include helping people connect with colleagues who can advise them in their work.

Therefore, a big part of servant leadership at this stage is creating and strengthening the cross-links among team members, which will help optimize team performance. You become like a host at a party, serving your guests and making introductions, so everyone feels welcome.

Serving a Self-confident Team: A Servant Leader

Once people have all the contacts they need and have found ways of working that are effective and efficient, there is little for you to do. You may be tempted to try to lead, but truly, you don’t need to.

Instead, leave them to it. What an observer will see is individual acts of leadership from different team members at different stages of their work. People will step forward when they need to, and step back when the tasks shift. This is the kind of team wide self-confidence that leaders should dream of.

So, what is your role? I’d say that it is true servant leadership. You offer nothing but a light touch. I’ll characterize your two roles as “rations” and “umbrella.”


Your first role is to ensure your team get the rations that are due to them. You also need to ensure they have the right resources, a productive work environment, and all the assets and information they need. You’re like a faithful servant, running around after them, providing them with what they need.

Essentially, then, your first job is to maintain the overall environment in which they can flourish.


But there’s another role. You’ve seen the movies where the faithful butler carries an umbrella to prevent their boss from getting wet. Well, that’s your job too. In organizations, it’s constantly raining all sorts of unwanted distractions and administrative duties that can keep us from being productive. As a servant leader, you take on the administration and the politicking, so your team doesn’t have to. You free them up to focus on their jobs.

In a way, therefore, you’re working for them. You do the tedious administration jobs, then let them get on and deliver.

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