I came across the idea of servant leadership several years ago when I joined ThoughtWorks. At the time, I was leading ThoughtWorks University (TWU) , a complex, global training program where our graduate hires, come together from across the globe, for a month and a half for an intense learning experience. The program's primary aim was to get our grads ready for their first client project whilst being the torch bearers of ThoughtWorks culture in their teams.

In the 5 years that I led TWU, I came across incredibly complex, delicate & high stake situations - perhaps a natural consequence of having some 100 folks from 14 different countries working together in a high collaboration & high pressure setting! In the midst of one such difficult situation, I found myself feeling lonely, betrayed &  nearly crippled by self doubt.

I needed to make fairly quick but sensible decisions, which would impact the future career of someone as well. Unfortunately, I also was at odds with the team around me about the best course of action. This was more a structural issue than a personal one - my team was dynamic & changed every 2 months, which meant that the views & knowledge we held about the program itself were quite different. Nonetheless the situation felt emotionally charged & toxic. I found myself feeling buried under the weight of everyone's opinions, unable to move forward & crushed by the feeling that I was letting everyone down.

As I shared my woes with my then mentor, she asked me to read about Servant Leadership and suggested that I might find clues about "the right thing to do" through the concept. I picked up a book called The Servant by James C Hunter and I must say I did find answers & then some!

The book is a fable style light read and its deceptively simple. It's about a man who has it all, and is on the brink of losing it, when he goes for a seminar on leadership. The facilitator is a priest, who is an ex-business tycoon, and the rest of the book is about the conversations between a group of 5 participants and the facilitator. This is a book I still cherish & has formed the foundations of my mental models about leadership. I also think it's especially useful for anyone joining ThoughtWorks to read it.

In this post, I'll share some ideas that really struck me. I'll quote directly from the book & share some personal reflections too.

Power and Authority

Power: The ability to force or coerce someone to do your will, even if they would choose not to, because of your position or might.

Authority: The skill of getting people to willingly do your will because of your personal influence. Authority is about who you are as a person, your character and the influence you’ve built with people.

Its not the first time I had read these definitions, but I did see a lot of meaning in these for the first time. I thought back to every person that I respected, would go the extra mile for, every person whose battle I would fight without blinking an eye. As the names emerged, here is what became clear:

The reason I would do it for them was simply because they had tremendous influence over me, which they had built by showing genuine concern, trustworthiness, integrity and an honest interest in my welfare.

This may sound simple, but it was a profound lesson that underpins my own style & relationships today. This quote from the book summarises how I understand the difference between power & influence today:

“Power erodes relationships, you can get a few seasons out of power but in the long run it damages relationships.”

The Old Paradigm

“Paradigms are simply psychological patterns, models or maps we use to navigate the world.”  While we each need our paradigms to make sense of the world, it's important that we don’t mistake them for all encompassing truths that never change. It requires a great amount of self-awareness and self honesty to be able to watch ourselves for that kind of thinking. Our paradigms are neither always correct nor do they transcend time. It’s important to shed old ones when they are no longer relevant and adopt new ones, and this process never ends.

One old paradigm I had lived with for a long time was one about leadership. I had seen leaders as a rather aggressive, astute, commanding lot, who are driven by ambition and getting goals met. Focused on business, financials and performance, they seemed to me like people who relentlessly chase their dreams and achieve their targets, and get others to do so for them too. Never mind if someone got crushed in the process! I had assumed that this was a necessary ingredient for so called "successful leadership", especially in the corporate world.

I learnt that this is the Old Paradigm, as Hunter calls it in the book .  

Hunter mentions the top-down pyramid style of management we use so widely in corporates, which is an old concept borrowed from centuries of war and monarchies. He then draws parallels between what this meant in the armed forces v/s what it means in the corporate world.

The troops are always looking upwards, to their superiors for orders and directions, and they are the closest to the enemy. The same thing is happening in management, the employees are constantly looking up to the management to give them direction, and make decisions, and in the process looking away from the customer, who BTW is equated to the enemy here!! There is really no one who understands the customer and can serve his / her changing needs on a regular basis.

I find these analogies quite powerful since they bring out the dysfunction of a command & control style leadership in a business setting quite clearly.

The New Paradigm

Hunter flips the old paradigm & examines it upside down - calling it the new paradigm. In this paradigm, the leader isn't calling the shots or shouting out orders for them to follow, instead she sees herself in service of her people.  

In Hunter’s words, a leader identifies and meets the legitimate needs of his / her people, and serves them . Their job is to remove every obstacle that’s in the way of their employees and teams, which prevents them from serving the customer. It's important to note though, that this is different from meeting their wants, that can be a very different ball game. A leader needs to develop the wisdom to identify the legitimate needs in the first place.

This concept was not just a refreshing change but a huge metaphorical sigh of relief as well. It made me feel that I didn't need to embody a style that was so at odds with my personal values in order to lead meaningfully.

The Servant Leadership Model

Most of this model is self explanatory and talks about what servant leadership is really all about. I would guess that the bar with “Love” could cause you to raise eyebrows, just as it did me! Take a moment to read further though.

Leadership is built based on authority, which is built on serving the people we lead. This sense of service comes when we “love” the people we lead. Love here means acting with love. In the context of leadership, I think it means, that even if we don’t like someone, we still act with respect, kindness and empathy towards that person. However, this “love” does not sustain itself, the leader needs the will to sustain it.

As simple as all of this sounds, if you really get down to it, it’s a LOT of effort to develop this kind of leadership. In the world we live in and the social conditioning we are subject to, it's far easier to act out of egotism, aggression and a pressure to perform, rather than serving the people we lead. There is nothing intellectually complex about the concept of this model. It's simple yet profound. But also hard work to implement on ourselves because it requires us to work at the deepest levels of our inner worlds.

Qualities of a Servant Leader

The book delves much deeper into the concept of Love & Leadership. Hunter lists out the following as the servant leader's qualities, and delves deeper into each of these.









As I read through these, I found several opposing forces within myself coming into alignment. I had somehow, before this moment, always felt a sense of disconnect between my personal values and professional life. I had always wondered when my reserves for working in the corporate world would run out and I would bolt into the wild, never to return! But I discovered that this was a style that embraced what I personally resonated with the most. And that somehow I had landed in a place that valued servant leadership as a style - ThoughtWorks.

So a rather unpleasant experience, opened the door into a new way of thinking, a door that was held ajar by none other than another servant leader, my own mentor. Since then, I have continued to stumble & learn, but with the confidence that I'm headed in the right direction. I invite you to discover more about this leadership style; who knows what amazing things you might discover about yourself and the world you inhabit!

Sources: The Servant by James Hunter

Cover Image Credit: Bilal O. on Unsplash

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