Servant leadership is one of the buzz words you hear around organizations adopting principles like those in the Agile Manifesto. It is more than just a buzz word and I have seen it work wonders for inspiring ownership which is one of the major components of high performing organizations.

Before we look at what a servant leader is, let’s look at some traditional management practices. Managers frequently feel that they have to step in when things get tough. But what happens to ownership when somebody comes in to save the day? How can a team own an outcome if somebody else dictates the solution? There are times when this behavior can be effective but nearly every project I have seen run in this manner has been late and very taxing on the team. On the other hand, projects run using a servant leadership approach tend to have a much higher success rate and teams tend to be happy and proud of what they accomplish.

So how can you tell the difference between traditional management and servant leadership and even transform from one to the other? It can be quite simple. Traditional managers use words like “I want …”  or “Do…” These phrases define the actions that a person should take and are directive.

Servant leaders need only to ask one question. “What do you need…?” Follow this with a goal and you have not only asked a question but made a succinct and powerful statement. The question can create a sense of urgency around delivering, inspire ownership and autonomy and let the person doing the work know that they have support. For example, a servant leader might ask: “What do you need to create the fastest car on earth in the next two years?” By doing so, they have defined problem, given the team the freedom to define a solution, defined an end date and implied that the team will be given what they need to succeed.

Fast forward a year into the effort, the team is running late. The servant leader uses the same format for the question. “What do you need to get back on track?” They have now told the team in a positive way that they need to find a solution to being late and that they have continued support. The sense of ownership has not been taken away because the team has not been told how to do anything and nothing has been changed out from under them. Contrast this solution with the response of many managers to come in and “save the day” by telling the team how to get back on track. I have seen time and time again where the blame game takes hold, people become distracted with the potential consequences of their behaviors, stress ensues and people revert back to behaviors and practices they are comfortable with instead of what has been proven to work better. People are told to work overtime and more often than not, the target is missed and what is produced is of low quality, low value and is unsustainable.

This one question is certainly not a silver bullet. There are often organizational impediments that stand in the way of giving the team the autonomy they need. The servant leader’s job is to find a way to break through these barriers so that the team does not have to deal with them. But, asking the right question is always the first step to getting the right answer.
Let’s change the word together!
~ Jeremy Webb

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