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30.03.2023 | 5 min

Leading by serving: the principles and practices of servant leadership

As a service company, we strive to be the best possible partners for our clients. But in order to do what’s best for them, we believe that we have to start with ourselves and be a healthy organization that brings out the best in people. And that’s why we introduced servant leadership. In this article, we’ll discuss what exactly servant leadership is and explain why we chose this approach as the way to move forward.

Leading by serving: the principles and practices of servant leadership - 2024 55
Table of Contents
  • What is servant leadership?
  • Why did we introduce servant leadership in OG?
  • The ten principles of servant leadership
  • What makes servant leadership possible?
  • Servant leadership as the foundation of the company’s mission

What is servant leadership?

There’s a Buddhist term, “mudita,” that captures the essence of servant leadership very well. It means “sympathetic happiness” or “the feeling of happiness about others’ success and well-being.” The idea of servant leadership is built upon that natural need to help and do what’s best for other people. It requires organizations to rethink what’s the purpose of a leader.

Instead of providing directions and inspiring people to follow, servant leaders focus on listening, understanding, and empowering people. Their goal is to create an environment that facilitates individual growth and increases the sense of community, which impacts the entire organization.

Why did we introduce servant leadership in OG?

Order Group was founded by five friends, and after 10 years, the core of our team is still intact. From the beginning, it was clear that one of our key goals was to remain a place where everyone involved feels happy, healthy, and fulfilled, no matter how much we expand as a company. We wanted to grow and evolve organically and keep working on fascinating and valuable projects.

So, by adding all those pieces together, Management 3.0 and servant leadership particularly is a logical consequence of our evolution as a company and as people.

At this point, I’d love to give you a complete summary of how exactly servant leadership works in practice and what impact it had on our organization. But that’s not as simple for two main reasons.

First, there’s no such thing as implementing servant leadership “by the book,” and it’s impossible to create such a set of guidelines. There are too many variables that require a unique approach in every organization. The process itself should involve and encourage all sorts of input from people in the organization. It should be for the people and by the people, and that’s why it’s always unique.

Second, we’re not done. In order to introduce servant leadership in a company, it takes much more than just a decision to do it. It’s a process of learning and organizational change that takes time and effort. It’s burdened with unavoidable failures and growing pains. It can only succeed if it’s embraced and spread by the people, most notably those with the most authority and experience, especially if the organization has a flat structure like ours. It’s difficult to say how far we are at this point, but we’re surely not there yet.

The ten principles of servant leadership

Before we move on to the actual list of principles, I’d like to draw a parallel between servant leadership and something that’s very close to the world of software development - scrum.

So, just like with scrum, there are a lot of articles, books, and other publications about servant leadership. Some of them will tell you that there are 10 principles, while others may give you just 4 or 7.

And I’m not making this up right now, you can find different lists with those exact numbers of “servant leadership principles.”

In our case, we’ll stick to the original list created by Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of servant leadership, but I want to point out that there are many new takes on the subject and tweaked approaches created by people with experience.

Exactly the same goes for scrum. There’s no perfect rulebook that will guide you through scrum implementation step-by-step and guarantee that you’ll get immediate results. Companies have different organizational cultures, philosophies, structures, and needs. That’s why I think it’s always good to look for inspiration but not to follow even the most established theories and guidebooks blindly.

So, let’s look at the list of 10 servant leadership principles. Here they are:

1. Listening

A number one on the list for a very good reason. Here’s where it all starts, with active listening and understanding. A servant leader’s role is to create a culture in which communication is easy and everyone is aware of how vital listening and communication are.

2. Empathy

Empathy is a close second as it’s tightly connected to listening. It’s the understanding and acknowledgement of someone else’s true emotions without judgment, unwanted advice, and unproductive sympathy.

3. Healing

Healing in servant leadership means understanding that failure is a way to learn and improve. Every mistake must be an opportunity to improve the process and grow.

4. Self-awareness

The understanding of one's own behavior, emotions, and beliefs is crucial in servant leadership not only for self-growth but due to one’s impact on everyone else. Good leaders have to know how their actions impact others.

5. Persuasion

There’s no room for manipulation or purely hierarchical dynamics in servant leadership. A leader’s role is to persuade others and achieve their goals using arguments based on experience and facts, not formal authority.

6. Conceptualization

Servant leadership requires the ability to see the big picture and openness to change, as well as understanding the long-term impact of that change.

7. Foresight

Foresight in servant leadership means analyzing the past and drawing accurate conclusions and predictions. It’s meant to facilitate progress and encourage smart experimentation.

8. Stewardship

Stewardship largely translates to the feeling of responsibility as a group member. Conscious servant leaders understand their role and do what’s best in their capabilities to uplift the entire organization through their actions.

9. Commitment to the growth of people

Servant leaders should make everyone around them better. They create environments that allow people to grow in a personal and professional way, making the entire community healthier.

10. Building community

Principle no. 10 can be considered a result of everything that comes before. It’s a conclusion and one of the key goals of servant leadership.

What makes servant leadership possible?

Setting aside my subjective interpretation of each principle, I generally agree with all of them. They represent some ideal state of being, and a good leader and a healthy organization require all those things, at least to some extent. But, of course, depending on the type of company, each one may play a more or less significant role.

However, something that I personally consider most important isn’t even there, and that’s trust, which is one of the fundamentals of Management 3.0. Servant leadership relies on people taking more responsibilities and being more open-minded and vocal. It’s empowering but requires trust all across the board. Without trust, there’s no honesty, no efficient communication, and everything else can fall apart.

On the other hand, trust doesn’t just magically appear out of the blue. It’s earned and developed in the organization through good practices and structures. So, in a way, servant leadership helps develop that trust.

Servant leadership as the foundation of the company’s mission

Our implementation of servant leadership is still in progress, and it’s too early to talk about results. There’s no deadline for such changes because we’re talking about a shift in mindset, which has to come naturally.

However, we’re entirely certain about the direction we took. Our mission as a company is to create solutions that boost global progress. And there’s no way to achieve that without progress as people.

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