Boss? Or Servant Leader?

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Sanding woodworking projects is a great time for introspection. It’s one of those necessary activities that few people enjoy (I’m one of the few), where you’re mostly running on autopilot. Inherently noisy and messy, it’s also remarkably centering and soothing. During one such exercise recently, I found myself pondering what leadership means, and in particular the true value leadership brings to an organisation, and how we think about that leadership.

So I ask you, assuming you lead a team of people: what’s your role? How do you see yourself, relative to that team? And I’m genuinely asking! I’d love to see some comments below. Let’s start a lively discussion. Or an argument, even. I know what my opinions are, and by the time you’ve finished this article, you’ll know what my opinions are too. Share yours. I dare you.

My personal management philosophy is really just a two-legged affair:

  1. Make sure the team has everything they need.
  2. Get out of the way.

Of course, there’s a lot more to effective management than this gross oversimplification. But you get the idea. Making sure they have everything they need is where the servant role comes in. Getting out of the way applies not just to me personally, but to my responsibility to keep the rest of the business out of the way, too.

Who directly produces the stuff that you sell?

Who’s important?

Let’s put aside organisation-structure trees, job titles and salary ranges for the moment. Which people truly add the most value to your business? Who directly produces the stuff that you sell (whether it’s a product, a service, whatever)? Who directly interacts with your client-base, takes orders, collects revenue, and so on? I’m not diminishing the importance of all the other supporting roles, without which the company couldn’t function – just saying that they are supporting roles. Their function is to support the value-generators. And this includes the entire management structure. I’d suggest that in an imaginary engineering company, the value-generators are:

  • Engineers!
  • The support and/or implementation teams
  • The sales team

Everybody else exists only to feed these folks what they need to ensure the value keeps flowing. Up to and including the CEO. As the leader of a technical team myself, I don’t directly generate any value. I don’t discover requirements. I don’t write code. I don’t find defects. Those are the activities that ultimately create a product we can sell. I don’t do any of them. That’s why I have a team of technical specialists (the direct value-generators). My job is to make sure they can do those important things. Likewise, my boss’s job is to make sure I’m able to do my job effectively, and so on.

In a large retail store, the value generators might be:

  • Customer-facing staff: till operators, shop-floor workers, service-desk folks, etc.
  • Shelf-packers
  • Cleaners

You get the idea? The important people are the ones who generate value. If you’re not one of those folks, then your only function is to do everything possible to enable them.

Wait a second! The shelf-packers are more important than the store’s General Manager?

Yes. And everyone above that manager. Absolutely.

Again, I’m not slighting the management structure or other folks. HR, Finance, Training, IT, Contracts, Legal, Marketing, Project Management, Facilities, Payroll, Regulatory, and so on, are all essential for the smooth running of the business. I don’t challenge that. I do challenge the alignment of some of them, in some organisations, at some times. The focus of the engineers in my team is not to mindlessly do my bidding and make me happy. Quite the reverse. I’m not here to tell them what to do and how to do it. I’m here to make sure they can do it. As happily and effectively as possible. I work for them.


Is that a bit of a radical proposal? I didn’t think it was, until quite recently when I was trying to explain this to someone… the explainee exclaimed “Wait, what? You work for them? Nonsense! They work for you.” This made me think that maybe my outlook is not the norm.

Yes, I’m still an authority figure. I hire (and sadly, occasionally have to fire) people. I mentor and coach and address behavioural issues. I guide and advise. I offer developmental steering. I make sure we stay on track, and help course-correct when we’re drifting. Ultimately, I’m responsible for my team’s performance (and the buck stops with me), and I’m not advocating namby-pamby new-age transcendental management-by-smiling. There will always be people and/or situations where a firm hand is what’s called for, no avoiding that. I lead. But primarily, I serve.

Outside of the direct value-generation centers, the same applies. As a leader, your role should focus on ensuring your team is able to execute its role. You’ve got other stuff going on too, I get that. You need to prepare up-line reports, get tax returns submitted, negotiate with vendors, manage inter-team expectations and communications, formulate long-term plans and road-maps, write press-releases, and so on. But where’s the focus?

The entire business should be lined up behind the value-generators

Back to the value-generators: if there’s any relevance to what I’ve written here, then surely it follows that the entire business should be lined up behind these people, with the sole aim of helping them? Now take a look around any organisation you please, and ask yourself if that’s the reality. I can think of a couple off-hand where it clearly isn’t. What’s your experience been?

Now ask yourself: Where’s the alignment?

If the primary aim of your company is to make and sell widgets, is every single functional area aligned behind that? If one of them isn’t… you’re getting in the way. If your IS/IT policies make it difficult for the widget-creators to create widgets… that’s getting in the way. If you put the focus on accurate estimates, timelines and plans, rather than getting on with creating and selling widgets, you’re getting in the way. If your expense-claim process is overly complex, that’s getting in the way. If you’re shackling your workforce with metrics madness, that’s getting in the way. If you’re not nurturing and constantly improving a culture where everyone loves coming to work every day, you’re getting in the way. If you’re not appreciating them as people rather than as revenue-generating units, that’s getting in the way. Get out of the way.

There are two threads here, really. Firstly, that necessarily, leaders are servants. Secondly, that the entire business should be aligned behind the direct value-generating folks.