Photo by Matthew Henry, courtesy of Unsplash

Should Product Owners be Servant-Leaders?

Published on 22nd November 2016

Being an effective product owner or product manager requires leadership: the development team and stakeholders need guidance and direction to collaborate and achieve product success. But as product people, we usually don’t have any authority over the individuals; we can’t tell people what to do. Can servant-leadership—leading others by serving them—help product owners and product managers guide and direct people?

What Is Servant-Leadership?

Servant-leadership means that “one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead,” writes Robert Greenleaf, the creator of the servant-leadership model. Servant-leaders want to “make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served” so that they “become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous.”

Sounds crazy? To me, servant-leadership means leading from the heart: recognising that genuinely caring for the people we work with and building strong relationships with them are prerequisites for achieving great things together. If we don’t empathise with the people we want to lead, they are unlikely to trust and follow us.

Caring for the followers, the people we work with, is not unique to servant-leadership, but plays a key part in other leadership approaches, too. Transformational leadership urges leaders to show genuine concern for the needs and feelings of their followers, for example, and Goleman’s leadership styles recognise affiliative leadership as an approach that puts people first. In Scrum, servant-leadership is regarded as the default leadership approach embodied by the ScrumMaster.

How Can Servant-Leadership Benefit Product Owners?

Servant-leadership encourages you to reflect on our motivation to be product leaders. Why do we want to lead others? Is it to gain power, status, success, or money? Is it to succeed together and help the people we lead grow and develop?

There is nothing wrong with gaining respect as well as a bonus or pay rise. But if these motivators dominate our thinking, we are in danger of no longer caring for the people we lead but seeing them as tools to advance our personal ambitions. This negatively affects our relationship with them and reduces their willingness to trust and follow us.

Servant-leadership also helps us question our approach to achieving success. Is the end—a successful product—more important than the means—how we got there? Do we expect that people just do their job, function, perform, and deliver? Are working extra hours and weekends normal to get a product release out? Or do we take an interest in the people we work with, show kindness to them, and encourage the developers to go home when they look tired and worn out?

Don’t get me wrong—I am no utopian. I know that great products are the result of hard work. But if you want sustained success and a work environment that is healthy and conducive to creative work, then you must care for the people you work with and lead—the development team and the stakeholders. This starts with taking a real interest in others, making an effort to be present and engage properly.

The beauty of this approach is that it benefits not only your followers, but it is equally beneficial for you. Being kind and caring makes you a happier person, and it increases your referent power. This makes it more likely that other trust and follow you.

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