10 Principles of Servant Leadership (and Why It’s Our Favorite Style)
“If your actions inspire people to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” - John Quincy Adams
A lot of companies look at employees as cogs in a wheel who exist solely to help the organization advance its goals. Leaders act as taskmasters who dole out authority and don’t care how work gets done, as long as it’s delivered on time.
When Nathan and I started TeamGantt, we decided to buck tradition and take a different approach. As leaders of the company, we care more about being part of the team and setting people up for success than making sure everyone knows who’s boss.
That’s why servant leadership is our go-to leadership style.
Let’s take a closer look at what servant leadership is and the 10 characteristics that define a servant leader.
What is servant leadership?
Servant leadership traces its origins to Robert Greenleaf. In his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader,” he described servant leadership like this:
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”
Servant leadership flips the typical leadership script by putting people ahead of power. A servant leader prioritizes the team’s growth and well-being, letting their own needs and ambition take a backseat.
10 key principles of servant leadership
So what does it take to be a servant leader? Servant leaders share a common set of core characteristics. Follow these 10 principles to put servant leadership to work with your team.
Listening is at the heart of servant leadership. If a team member’s talking, give them your full focus and attention—no interruption allowed! It’s a simple way to make your team feel valued so they know you care.
A lot goes into empathy, but when it comes to servant leadership, it basically comes down to getting to know your team. Find out what makes them tick, and learn their strengths and weaknesses. That way you can let your team members shine and maybe even help them turn their weaknesses into strengths.
Some team members may come to you from a previous job that had a really toxic work environment—and you have the privilege to help them heal.
Don’t worry: It’s not as hard as it sounds. Healing is as simple as creating a healthy work environment that has work-life balance built in. It’s also about giving people the tools they need to succeed so they feel like a valued member of the team.
I’ve already mentioned the importance of understanding your team’s strengths and weaknesses. But it’s just as important to do a little self-reflection of your own.
Take inventory of your own strengths and weaknesses, and figure out how you fit into the overall team. Then use yourself in ways that benefit the team and the company. Recognizing your own limitations can help you see opportunities to leverage your team’s strengths more clearly.
Slick sales tactics may come to mind when you think of persuasion. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Servant leaders use persuasion to build consensus and get buy-in from their team. That way everyone feels like they have a stake in the team’s success.
You’ve got to know where you’re going as a leader and a company. After all, how else will you carve a positive path for your team?
TeamGantt enables you to keep the big picture in mind without losing focus on the day-to-day. For example, the Project Health Report makes it easy to see how all your projects are tracking, while Workloads enables you to keep a finger on the pulse of your team.
Another key characteristic of servant leadership is taking the knowledge you’ve learned in the past and applying it to the future so you and your team can continue to grow.
Project post-mortems or retrospectives are a great tool for figuring out what worked—and what didn’t—so you can fine-tune your process with each project. You can also use TeamGantt’s baselines feature to compare your original plan to your actual timeline and pinpoint opportunities to improve.
Stewardship is simply leading by example. It’s your job to set the tone for your team, so don’t ask people to do things you wouldn’t do yourself.
At TeamGantt, I lead the development team. One way I put this into practice is by being the first person to sign up for 2:00 a.m. deployments. If something goes wrong, I’ll take the heat. This goes a long way toward building trust—a must for any well-functioning team.
9. Commitment to the growth of people
If you want your team to grow, you’ve got to invest in people. One simple way we do this is by providing an annual conference budget so team members can develop the skills they need to thrive in their role.
We also conduct 360 performance reviews each year. As a leader, you can only see so much. A 360-degree review brings peer and even direct report feedback into the process so you have a more complete picture of performance and can identify meaningful opportunities for growth.
10. Building community
Teams who trust each other work together to get more done. That’s why it’s important to cultivate relationships among your team.
As a fully remote team, we have to be extra-intentional about this. We bring the whole team together once a year for our annual team meetup, while smaller teams get together more often. We make sure to build in time for fun between business strategy so trust has room to grow. It’s worth the investment!
Lead people and projects to success
Servant leaders know there’s always more to learn—and we can help you out with that. The Art and Science of Project Leadership is an online video course designed to help you grow your skills. Watch the classes anytime, from anywhere—and it’s totally free!
I recommend starting with An Introduction to Project Leadership—not just because it’s the first in the series—but because it lays the foundation for what it means to be a great project leader.
Remember: You don’t have to have a manager title or a team of direct reports to be a servant leader. If you lead projects in any way, you have the power of positive influence and can set your team and organization up for success.