4 Leadership Skills That Define ‘Servant Leadership’

21 May

By John Vancil, Director of Professional Services, Open Systems Technologies – May 17, 2013


Good leaders spend time thinking about being good leaders and how to be great leaders. They think about what it means to be a leader, and especially in our world of professional services they ask themselves, “How do I provide effective leadership to a group of highly motivated, self-directed, super-smart people? How do I infuse the idea of accountability and ownership throughout the organization while not being seen as directive and authoritarian? How do I provide the support and care required by our values and culture while still making sure we have the framework and processes needed to delight our clients and scale appropriately for growth?”

The easy answer is the model which is very hierarchical and authoritarian. When the boss yells “jump,” the response is to jump first, then ask how high and jump again. (As an aside, I hate it when I am referred to as someone’s “boss.” It provides an immediate and negative visceral reaction in my gut.)  This leadership methodology is prevalent in larger bureaucratic organizations such as the Federal Government or the US Army. In fact, the first thing you have to do when you join the Army (or any other branch of service) is spend eight weeks in basic training learning how to say “yes” and take action as directed without hesitation. (They pretend that they are teaching you how to shoot a weapon and throw a hand grenade, but the fact of the matter is that what they are really teaching you is to do what you are told, when you are told and in the manner in which you were taught. There is no room for debate on the battlefield!)

The directive and authoritarian model is one which works well for the military, but does it translate well into the business world? I would argue that in some cases it does, in modified form. The larger the organization, the more difficult it becomes to manage without directive leadership. A huge, multi-national such as General Motors or General Electric (they even sound militaristic) would be very difficult to lead without being structured and hierarchical.

Another model, which closely aligns with the directive and authoritarian model, is one which is based upon fear. The boss is to be feared and if you don’t ask how high when she says jump there is a good chance you will be out on the street, and your family will starve while you search for cans to return at the Super Walmart. Not a pretty thought! No one wants to work in that sort of world, but it is so prevalent across corporate America. Why? I believe that it is because it is easy.  Once the authority has been established and the direction has been stated, it happens. No more effort is required, no consensus building,  no empathetic discussion, no input from anyone not desired or requested. I liken it to the rules around aspirin at the local high school. You will get suspended for bringing aspirin to school because the application of common sense is hard and fraught with risk for the school leadership. Therefore a blanket rule is enacted, and—voilá—it is all so easy now. Bring aspirin to school and get expelled. No “ifs, ands or buts” and no difficulty making the decision.

These models do not work as well in great professional services organizations. The team is too smart, too motivated and has too many other options to stay in such an environment. And (by the way) those models aren’t any fun, and we better be having some fun because if you aren’t having any fun why would you stay someplace if you do not have too?

The best way to describe the style I believe works best for these organizations is “Servant Leadership.”

Servant leadership is the idea that we (as leaders) are there to serve the needs of the team and the individuals that make up the team. We exist to remove roadblocks and provide the service needed to allow the individual to excel and to succeed and to provide insanely great service to our clients. We exist to provide continuous improvement that makes it easier to develop and provide repeatable and profitable solutions to our client’s toughest problems. We exist to move heaven and earth to find a way to deliver a commitment when another client’s need has trumped the schedule. We exist to remove the burden of responsibility for the little things, so that the team can pay attention to the big things. (That’s one of the reasons Google has free lunch and all those snacks and fridges full of pop. No need to sweat the small stuff around where to go for lunch or having the change for the vending machine!)

Sounds simple right? Like with many things in life that is not the case.  There are competing responsibilities around silly things like setting strategic direction, expense control, gross margin management and bottom line profitability which sometimes work at odds to being a servant leader. But the really cool thing is that while those are important responsibilities, they really do come second to the responsibility to provide servant leadership. Should it be that way at your company as well?

So what does Servant Leadership look like? Here are some ideas for a servant mindset which might help to set the tone.

  1. Set the right priorities. Employees first, then clients, then profits. This runs counter to many other firms who put the client first. This is not an accident.  My belief that if we serve our employees and take care of them, then they will serve and take care of our clients, and that in turn will serve and take care of profits.
  2. Ask the right questions. What can I do for you? How can I help you accomplish that goal? Who can I talk with to smooth the way? How am I serving your needs? What do you think we should do?
  3. Communicate clearly. Don’t let there be any more ambiguities in communications than are absolutely necessary. Work hard to make sure that everyone is aligned and understands the mission, their part in it and what others are responsible for as well.
  4. Walk the walk. Whenever you see the opportunity, put the employee first. Fly the remote employees and their spouses in for the annual kickoff meeting. Take your direct reports to dinner or a ball game. Include their families in activities. When you see an employee out at the same restaurant where you are dining, pay for their dinner. Make sure your team knows that you value their work/life balance as much as they do through your words and actions.

Simple, yet difficult.  Done right it will make working at your company, and being a leader for your teams, so much more fun and so rewarding!


John Vancil

John Vancil

John Vancil is a twenty-five year veteran of the Information Technology field, currently holding the position of Director of Professional Services for Open Systems Technologies (OST) in Grand Rapids Michigan. During his career, John has held numerous development, support, management and staff level positions with companies ranging from enterprise (Electronic Data Systems, Baan) to the SMB space (Nucraft Furniture, OST). Today John is responsible for a $20 million dollar services operation which encompasses Data Center Solutions, Application Development, ERP and Advisory Services, BMC/Enterprise Technology Management, Security and Managed Services. As a servant leader, John has helped OST to grow service revenues by greater than 25% per year for the last three years, while maintaining a client satisfaction score of 9.78 on a scale of 10. John shares his life with wife Amy, daughter Catherine and Lambeau the world’s most exuberant Golden Retriever. When he is not attending to the needs of his teams at OST, John likes to golf, fly-fish, compose and perform music and hang out with the family.

2 Responses to “4 Leadership Skills That Define ‘Servant Leadership’”

  1. Adam October 10, 2013 at 8:20 am #

    With this Servant Leadership mentality, how do you do things that require pieces from the authoritarian model? For example, how do you discipline employees (or even fire them)? How do you work through intra-department (or even inter-department) issues with staff? If concerns or issues are reported, how have you best found to work through them?

    • OST Talking Head October 11, 2013 at 11:30 am #

      Being a Servant Leader does not (unfortunately) absolve you from having to handle the nasty chores… there are still discussions to be had around performance and the occasional (pretty rare for us though…) termination. The interesting thing is that the performance discussions are smoother, because as a leader you are coming from a place of trust and compassion… there tends to be an understanding that you are really just searching for the best resolution or change for the organization, and not just imposing some new rule or regulation. Terminations are difficult no matter what… they need to be delivered with grace and with compassion, but also with consistency and focus.

      If the organization has a strong Servant Leadership model in place, then the inter-departmental discussions shift from the traditional finger pointing model to one where the common theme is “How can we serve each other better?”. This leads to a more collaborative and harmonious discussion and effort.

      In the end though — if things really go south — the truth of the matter is that eventually there will be a person of authority who will make a final call. Despite the best efforts of those involved, sometimes things just get out of hand and escalate to the point where someone has to step in and say “Okay, I have heard everyone out, here is what we are going to do.” I believe that the way that message is delivered and the way the follow on activities are carried out then become the markers for the Servant Leadership culture.

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