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Should Product People be Servant-Leaders?

Published on 22nd November 2016

Last updated on 22nd June 2021

Being an effective product professional requires leadership: Product management teams, stakeholders, and development teams need guidance and direction to collaborate and achieve product success. Can the servant-leadership model help you with this challenge?

What Is Servant-Leadership?

Servant-leadership is a leadership model that is based on the idea that “one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead,” writes Robert Greenleaf, the creator of the model. Leaders should “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. It 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 has long been regarded as the default leadership approach embodied by the ScrumMaster.


Can Servant-Leadership Benefit You?

Servant-leadership encourages you to reflect on our motivation to be a product leader. Why do you aspire to lead others? Is it to succeed together and help the people grow and develop? Or is it to gain status, power, or money?

There is nothing wrong with gaining respect plus a bonus or pay rise. But if these motivators dominate your thinking, there is a risk of not primarily caring for the people you lead but rather seeing them as means to advance your ambitions. This will negatively affect your relationship with them and reduce their willingness to trust and follow you.

Servant-leadership also helps you question your approach to achieving success. Is the end—a successful product—more important than the means—how we got there? Do you expect that people just do their job, perform, and deliver? Are working extra hours and weekends normal to get a product out? Or do you take a genuine interest in the people you work with, show kindness to them, and encourage the development team members 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 results 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 lead. This starts with taking a real interest in the individual, making an effort to be present, and attentively listen to them.

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

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