Servant Leadership: Values and Empathy to Inspire, Elevate, and Empower
It is an incredibly rewarding experience to work towards common goals surrounded by engaged people. My passion is to help people grow, achieve success as a team, and to rise above challenges together.
In 2009, I was a part of the first team adopting agile practices within our organization. This experience opened my eyes to completely new ways of working. I immediately appreciated the benefits of cross-functional teams and iterative delivery, and have championed these practices with each team I have been a part of since then.
With growth as a leader, I was inspired to delve deeper into understanding the fundamental principles behind these practices. While exploring Scrum, I realized that I was accustomed to leading by example and mentoring others, but the responsibilities of the Scrum Master to serve the team and actively remove team impediments strongly resonated with me. I was inspired to incorporate this into my leadership style and started a journey exploring servant leadership to continuously evolve my method.
Over the years, I have discovered recurring themes that are crucial to build high performing successful teams.
Values, Empathy, and Culture
Values and Empathy are the foundation of my leadership approach. Values drive one’s purpose, growth, and interactions. A leader’s values are exemplified through their communication with others and influence the type of people they surround themselves with.
Being aware of one’s own values and understanding the values of others are powerful assets when building meaningful communication and relationships with people. Empathy enables a leader to recognize the values of teams and individuals through insightful interactions. These interactions continuously refine a servant leader’s understanding of individual and collective perspectives within the team. Without empathy, a leader loses context of the important aspects that binds a team together through challenges and successes.
The term culture can hold different meanings to many people. I define culture as the behaviors and practices within a team or organization that are socially acceptable, and include how people deal with conflict or disagreement. A servant leader who builds a foundation focused on values and empathy can promote a healthy, safe, and nurturing culture within the team. This culture enables the servant leader to collaboratively establish purposeful goals and the necessary practices to set the team up for success. The journey towards these goals will include obstacles and pain points. By understanding these obstacles, the servant leader can motivate, inspire, champion efforts to overcome these challenges, and support the team to grow.
Through my years of experience, building autonomy is one of the most effective ways to empower others. This includes decentralizing decisions to those who have the greatest context of the situation and establishing the necessary feedback loops for teams and individuals to enable learning and improvement.
An example of empowerment is working with each individual to establish meaningful growth and learning goals for themselves, while harmonizing these with the company’s broader organizational objectives. A servant leader guides each person to explore options for building their own goals, ensuring there is a mutual understanding of why these goals are important to them. This self discovery with proper support from the servant leader helps set up the individual for success and gives further potential for self-direction, significance, and commitment to these goals.
A servant leader empowers autonomous teams by outlining clear goals, ensuring the team has the ability to self-organize, and the freedom to make the process and technical decisions that impact their work. For example, the Product Owner of a Scrum team describes a Sprint goal that provides the user the most value at the end of a Sprint. This describes what the user is intended to achieve and why it’s important. The team is trusted to determine how this is implemented with the tools, knowledge, and options they have available.
The ability to inspect and adapt through Retrospectives also provides a significant opportunity to empower the team. The team has a chance to reflect on notable events, challenges, and options on how to change their method of working for improvement. The resulting course of action originates from the ideas of the team and the team has the autonomy to adapt to any necessary changes with support from the servant leader.
Enabling people is intrinsically tied with empowerment. A servant leader empowers people by ensuring they have the knowledge, skills, and the tools they need for success.
Forming cross-functional teams allow for greater context and collaboration than functionally-divided or siloed teams. For example, incorporating development, QA, and product stakeholders into a software development team allows team alignment on the product vision and allows for feedback on how the vision is best realized through implementation.
If the team is lacking in certain functional skills or knowledge to achieve a goal or desired result, the team needs to be able to build this skill set or knowledge. Optionally, the team needs to be augmented with the people capable of bringing this aspect into the team.
Often, other stakeholders with specialized skills need to be involved with the team. For instance, this can include experts versed in User Experience, Database, or Infrastructure. However, the most effective teams are truly cross-functional, and its members span the entire value stream of delivery. Every stakeholder involved in the process, from establishing the vision to the delivery of the product or service, plays a part in the success of the team. Establishing teams that work closely together around this holistic view ensures the team has the context, skills, and knowledge they need to deliver value to the end user or customer. This results in less waste and delay in comparison to team hand-offs in a functionally siloed organization.
Cross-functional teams are able to self-organize and tackle impediments, but they will eventually come across an obstacle beyond their control and require assistance to resolve it. These obstacles are often in the form of a knowledge gaps or a process or technical dependency. When the team encounters dependencies or obstacles outside of the team’s control, a servant leader supports by facilitating the resolutions. To help mitigate these impediments in the future, the team will look to incorporate this new knowledge into the team, or build this resolution into standard team practices.
Conflict and Disagreement
Disagreement can be an uncomfortable but inevitable situation within a team of individuals with varying experience and perspectives. A servant leader can enable and empower a team by supporting them with a framework, knowledge, and set of strategies to handle disagreement, and foster healthy debate without impacting personal or psychological safety. Helping establish the team norms of exploring each perspective in a particular debate and collectively deciding how to move forward will better prepare the team with handling disagreements. This practice includes ensuring each perspective is known and understood, and the conclusion includes deciding whether to explore the ideas of a single perspective, multiple perspectives, or to simply agree to disagree. If needed, the servant leader can facilitate the resolution of the disagreement, but empowering the team to have healthy discussions for resolving disagreements amongst themselves further builds the autonomy and culture of the team.
People thrive in a culture that nurtures the values of growth and continuous learning. A servant leader relates to individuals by understanding their passions and interests, and facilitating the means to explore growth opportunities. Each individual is coached on how to set growth goals, to seek and give constructive feedback, and to reflect on the progress of this growth journey.
Team and individual growth is further strengthened when people are encouraged to learn through various means including discovery, knowledge sharing, mentorship, and experimentation.
Agile retrospectives are an example of team-based learning and growth. The team reflects on their ways of working: communication, collaboration, challenges, and identifying goals for improvement. The team implements a change and evaluates its results to determine if the change was effective in allowing the team to reach its goal. If the change was ineffective, the team implements a different change in pursuit of its goal.
A servant leader ensures that teams and individuals have the time, understanding, and support for investment in learning and experimentation to elevate their knowledge and skill set.
Inspire, Engage, and Align
Strong leaders share a vision that inspires their team through a common purpose. This inspiration often stems from the shared values that resonate strongly with each individual. Examples can include technological discovery, passion for customer experience, pursuit of clean energy, social connection, or contributing to the greater good.
A servant leader aligns teams by providing clear goals to pave the way towards this vision, bringing each individual along on the journey. These goals allow autonomous teams to self-organize and have each member’s contributions complement the group effort towards achieving these goals.
Understanding each team member’s values and interests allows for opportunities to engage individuals in growing their skills and knowledge. A servant leader ensures people have the ability to utilize their talents, while also challenging each individual to grow their comfort zone and increase the breadth and depth of their skills. This can be achieved through mentorship, coaching, and facilitating the necessary support each member requires along their journey of learning and mastery of their craft.
A servant leader that can effectively communicate a vision through ideas that resonate with the shared values of a team will naturally be able to inspire, engage, and align a team towards the objectives they set together towards this vision.
Servant leadership takes shape in many ways, but the common factor is that this leader grows, supports, and is invested in people. A servant leader inspires people through a meaningful vision and nurtures a healthy culture founded on core values. This person builds autonomy, empowering people to take ownership of decisions and actions towards aligned objectives. A servant leader looks for opportunities to invest in learning and improvement in order to elevate and engage the people they work with. This leader will search for ways to enable the team to overcome their challenges and disagreements, while exploring opportunities for growth. All of this is achieved through empathy and understanding the needs and perspectives of each individual and the team as a whole.
- Inbar Oren, et al. “Principle #9 — Decentralize Decision-Making.” Scaled Agile Framework, 9 Feb. 2021, www.scaledagileframework.com/decentralize-decision-making/.
- theRSAorg. “RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.” YouTube, 1 Apr. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc.
Special thanks to my editor Dr. Jennifer Sanchez
© Michael Jason Sanchez, 2021