How to Misrepresent Servant Leadership

Originally posted on February 8 2011, 3:07 PM  

Disclaimer: I’m a firm believer in this concept. While it may look like a sort of anarchy in some, socially critical, working communities; it is, in my opinion, the best way to manage intellectual workers groups.

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I’m an admirer of the work of people like Tom DeMarco (Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition) ),

Tim Lister 
(Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies: Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior ) ,

Paul Marciano
Carrots and Sticks Don't Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT ) or
Joel Spolsky
Smart and Gets Things Done: Joel Spolsky's Concise Guide to Finding the Best Technical Talent)

Servant leadership is not the only way to make tings work and requires a lot of courage, either from managers and employees, to be implemented. It is, though, the organization that makes lives easier for everyone and thus, it is the stabler in the long term.

I was a bit shocked when I saw this article  by Mitch Mc Crimmon, who demolishes the idea from the basement.

Sorry to say that, mate, but you got it all wrong.

It is not about switching to the nurturing parent model from the critical parent; it’s about treating the employees like grown up adults. Grown ups can be told with truth, all the truth, and can be expected to understand and act consequently.

It is not about encouraging employees to be proactive and entrepreneurial; it’s about letting them express all their talents without restraining them. Those who are not talented somehow, should not have been hired in the first place.

It is not about holiness; it is about honestly knowing strengths and weaknesses both of the manager and the employees.

The first manager’s duty is creating the best conditions possible for her team to achieve results. Point the finger to a target and let the team do the job, if something stops them from achieving the results, then use her influence to remove the obstacle.

The manager is the worst possible person to take decisions regarding actual operations, because  she doesn’t do the job. The manager must provide the team with the means to acquire the non technical knowledge and guarantee the team's autonomy, both necessary to take decisions.

 The manager is the worst person possible to make a plan, because he’ll never have to get her hands dirty implementing it. The manager must ask the team to create a plan, wrap it in nice paper and defend it against all the stakeholders.

The manager is the worst person possible for defining a long term vision, because she’s not in the position to know all the intricacies and feel all the weak signals where future is going to emerge from. The manager must let the team define it and find a way to align it with the long term company strategy (if any...).

Last but not least, to do this the team must have exactly the same information the manager has, go to the same meetings, read the same documents and the same e-mails.

A managers should never say “I think”, she must say “My people think”.

A manager should never say “I do”, she must say “My team does”.

A manager should never say “I can”, she must say “The guys can”.

I had the luck to serve shortly under such a boss, and, I tell you, it’s an entirely different story. It’s like moving from 5th grade to college. I’m sure that there’s a lot of people ready for college, and you?

Now, more than ever, these ideas are only mine and not my company's



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Afterthoughts from the end of 2013

While I have always tried to give the largest autonomy to the people working for me, I must admit that I was not such a manager as described above.
When It is your neck that risks to be cut if the targets are not achieved, it requires a strong dose of courage to rely completely on your team.
Particularly, when you do not fully control the team composition and the targets are very specific and imposed from the outside.
So, I keep thinking that servant leadership is the style that can obtain the best results, but requires a lot of courage to be fully implemented.