How to Sharpen Your Soft Skills to be a Servant Leader

  • October 27, 2022

Waiting for my return flight after SAFe® Summit 2022, I have time to reflect on the conference’s themes. Organizations are moving toward outcome-oriented processes and cross-functional teams with business agility and value stream management initiatives. It’s clear that traditional management, where employees serve their manager, won’t cut it. It will require a shift to servant leadership where managers provide their employees with the vision, goals, and future runway. A shift in leadership behavior such as this can be an enabler to unlock the organization’s flow, resulting in successful business transformation. As we all know, great people working together, thinking together, and being empowered to make decisions as a team aligned to a common goal can go a long way.

While servant leadership was described more than half a century ago in The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf, its popularity has taken off since the onset of COVID. With the necessity of more flexibility in workplaces, schedules, time off, and more, the team member input and wellbeing have never been more important to achieving desired outcomes. And when you add an agile framework, such as SAFe, to the mix, you just can’t get work done with top-down management. The transparency required to visualize the work process and potential impediments necessitates truthful, two-way communication. Everyone participates in driving success. Remember it won’t always be easy. Becoming a servant leader will always be a journey for me, but I’ve had help from mentors and colleagues in developing a few guidelines that have improved my servant-leadership skills. As I experiment, fail, and try again, I mature -- and hopefully mentor and create opportunities for my teams to prosper in this digital age.

Put others above yourself

This is not easy in an organization where people talk big about their success and what they have accomplished. Servant leadership is not about bragging about your personal success. It’s about lifting up your team, and creating the runway for their success and then celebrating what has been accomplished together and how it has added value for a client or even your own organization. If you instead boast about your success or capability as a leader or about an initiative that you delivered, you diminish the contributions of every other team member. As a leader, your contribution to the team is supporting and providing the execution of the value that leads to successful outcomes of the goals and vision that has been defined.

Think about the last time you put yourself before the team and you worked late on something. In the morning the team reaped the rewards of that extra time to have a successful day, that’s how we impact others!

Set the vision for what success looks like

How do you know you are successful as a team? A servant leader helps the team understand the organizational goals and what team success means. By helping your teams create solutions and strategies, you enable the success of your team. This can’t be “in name only.” You must empower employees to make decisions, not just say that you do. The teams are where the information is day to day. If you have hired and mentored the right team, let them loose to make real decisions.

When employees make the decisions and execute, everyone understands what went into the goal and commits more fully to the desired outcome and feels a part of the success. When I say empower the team, I don’t mean delegate something to the team to complete that you don’t want to work on. Instead, embolden the team to align on a decision and solution and then ensure they have the tools and the path forward to execute on the solution that provides measured success to the goals trying to be achieved by the team.

Celebrate Success

Take time to celebrate and smell the roses with your team. In today’s digital world everything moves fast. Taking a pause to celebrate success shows each employee what they mean to the organization. They might not even realize how much a difference they make until it’s recognized. This positive reinforcement can increase understanding among team members about others’ contributions. It might even give a boost to your next effort by building confidence. As a servant leader you need to be self-aware, but you also need to be able to read and observe behavior and understand when a celebration is needed-- or instead a break.

Create a safe environment

Without a feeling of safety, team members won’t perform optimally. After all, safety comes only after satisfying physiological needs, such as food, water, clothing, and shelter, in the oft-quoted Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s important, and it’s something that a servant leader should strive to create.

Team members need to feel that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” or “I failed, I need help” without fear of judgment or punishment. Such servant leaders invite people with open arms when they have a problem rather than telling them to come back with their own solution. Difficult conversations must be met with positive intent. Not all conversations are easy when you have a great team, but teaching and mentoring how to accept feedback is part of this process. When feedback is given, it must be in the spirit of an opportunity to grow and mature.

Start your journey

I hope these guidelines help you on your own journey to servant leadership. They are a good start for anyone in an organization, whether you are a scrum master, an RTE and leader, or a corporate executive. As a leader keep a growth mindset and always be learning so that you can mentor and coach your team forward. Learning aside, maybe the hardest thing is modeling those behaviors. Becoming a servant leader is not easy. When you fall back into old habits, you need to realize it and push forward again, maturing as a servant leader. Lead your teams, be genuine, be you, be transparent – reward your team’s success!

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Keith Buehlman
Keith Buehlman
Keith is an agile transformation coach, flow advisor, business transformational leader and consultant with more than two decades of business and IT experience, including over a decade of agile transformation, business digital transformation and innovation experience. He is highly talented at diagnosing issues and prescribing strategies, having built a variety of strategies and teams including innovation incubators, Centers of Excellence and new businesses and practices.

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