How Servant Leadership Can Transform Software Development Teams

Jeff Ferguson

December 15, 2023

There’s no debating the importance of strong leadership within teams and organizations. 

Yet, it’s the type of leadership style that can make or break your organization. The servant leadership model is critical for success, empowering teams to do what they do best.

The concept of servant leadership is a strong fit for software development teams. Its principles encompass the agile mindset and using Scrum as a delivery tool.

In this article, we’ll discuss the servant leadership model, how it differs from the traditional top-down approach, and how software companies can specifically use it to achieve its highest potential.

What is servant leadership?

Servant Leadership is a philosophy that prioritizes the well-being of those being served before the wants and needs of the leaders themselves.

While servant leadership has always existed, Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”

Since then, the concept has become a staple of leadership training and methodology across industries and cultures.

Traits of Servant Leadership

In his speech on servant leadership in business, Dr. Kent M. Keith, former CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, listed the traits true servant leaders exemplify.

Humble

The cornerstone of servant leadership is humility. Without it, this practice isn’t possible.

You can’t serve people well if you aren’t able to think of others before yourself. 

When people within an organization choose to use their position for the benefit of others rather than themselves, individuals and teams flourish.

At Taazaa, we base our business around many of these traits, but humility is one of our core pillars.

Respectful

Teams thrive in an environment where they’re treated with dignity and respect.

Treating your team members as fellow human beings can inspire them to do their best work. When your developers genuinely feel seen and supported, they’re more willing to do what’s necessary for success.

While disagreements and other challenges will arise, respectfully handling them is critical.

Collaborative

The “my way or the highway” mentality doesn’t work.

Great leaders work with their teams to develop new ideas and practical ways to solve problems or get things done.

Empathetic

Similar to the idea of respect, empathy is crucial for authentic servant leadership.

This willingness to look at a situation from another person’s perspective to better understand what they’re experiencing can transform how you approach problems.

Not only does it help you think differently, but it also gives your team members confidence that their thoughts and feelings are valued.

Empowering and Trusting

You hired each development team member for a reason, so give them the freedom to do what they do best.

Letting go of control can be difficult, but allowing your developers to innovate and find creative solutions is necessary for their growth and product quality.

Being Present

Making yourself available for your team when they need help is a small but invaluable gesture. 

Whether it’s answering their questions, offering advice, or simply giving them a listening ear, it provides a feeling of trust and support that instills comfort and confidence.

Curious

No matter how long you’ve been in software development, there’s always something new to learn.

Be open to fresh ideas and new perspectives from your team.

Even if you know the answer, ask questions about projects or processes. You might be surprised how much more insight you’ll gain from a simple question.

Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Servant leaders don’t come with all the answers.

They look to their people to bring problems and solutions. 

As a leader, that isn’t an easy position to be in, but recognizing areas where your team may have more insight and harnessing that is another example of humility in action. 

Providing Guidance, Not Directives

A boss is someone who tells people what to do. A servant leader provides guidance and help, allowing people to work through things in a healthy way that builds them up.

To be a strong leader, you empower people to do the work independently while offering your expertise to help them along the way.

Adaptive

The greatest generals in history had a plan of attack but could adjust their formations when things changed on the battlefield. 

The same concept applies to leading your development team. When you go into a sprint, you have a plan of attack, but when issues arise, you can adapt your thinking and help move your team in a different direction to accomplish the project goals.

Traditional Top-Down Leadership

Now that we know what servant leadership looks like, let’s examine the other side to see what to avoid. 

Here are examples of the traditional, power-based, top-down leadership model.

Domineering: “There’s no group consensus. We’re doing it my way, and that’s that.”

Leaders Have Answers: “I know everything that we need for this project, and I’ll be the one to make the calls.”

Accepts No Input: “I’m the one running the show, and I don’t need anyone’s ideas or thoughts.”

Demanding: “This will be done how and when I want it. No excuses.”

Dictates Teams and Processes: “I will decide who needs to do what task.”

Arrogant: “I’m the boss for a reason. I know what’s best, and what I say goes.”

Power-Driven: “I am more concerned with what will advance my career and help me reach my goals than with what is good for my team.”

Servant Leadership in Business

This leadership style benefits any organization, regardless of what they do.

This quote from CIO.com captures how this concept can be implemented in software development.

“In the technology industry, servant leadership is most often seen in agile development environments on Scrum teams. On a Scrum team, the Scrum Master isn’t necessarily a leader; instead, they’re a team member who works closely with other agile workers and takes charge of defining requirements, mapping sprint plans, and resolving any roadblocks along the way.”

Practices of Servant Leadership in Business

Implementing servant leadership into the business world is an essential step in changing how we operate, not just for the benefit of our teams but, more importantly, for our customers.

In the speech we referenced earlier, one of Dr. Keith’s main ideas was how an organization’s goal must be to serve people, not to make money. Yes, they need to make money to grow and continue to serve others, but the act of making money shouldn’t be the priority.

“I believe that businesses don’t exist to make money, they make money so they can continue to exist. They make money so they can continue to grow in service to others. Their purpose is to make life better for those they serve.” 

From a development perspective, as a team leader, your goal is to improve your team’s life so they have the freedom to design and build a better product for your client and—ultimately—their end users.

As outlined by Dr. Keith, there are five main ways in which servant leadership can be implemented to serve a more significant business purpose, including:

  • Listening
  • Changing the pyramid
  • Developing your people
  • Coaching, not controlling
  • Unleashing the energy and intelligence of others

Listening

The ability to listen non-judgmentally to your team is essential in leadership.

Go into every conversation without any answers, preconceived ideas, or solutions in mind. Listen compassionately to your developers and try to understand what they’re saying before forming an opinion. 

It makes them feel valued and allows you to come in with a fresh perspective.

This ideal is also true when it comes to your customers. When you act like you know everything you need to without asking more questions, you’ve already lost the battle of putting their needs above yours.

Changing the Pyramid

The traditional top-down hierarchy puts the smallest number of “important” people at the top—C-Suite, board members, presidents, etc. Then, as the pyramid goes down, the larger groups of people become less important—including the customer. 

By turning the pyramid upside down, individuals stop looking up to support their superiors and start looking to please the customer.

“You can please your boss, they can please their boss, and they can please the board of directors without anybody really paying attention to the wants and needs of the customer,” Dr. Keith said.

Instead of orders flowing down from the top, ideas should flow up from the bottom:

  • Team-driven Ideas: The group makes decisions, not a single leader.
  • Servant Leadership: Leaders place their teams’ needs above their own.
  • Strong Relationships: Leaders build bonds among teams while focusing on customer needs.
  • Comprehensive Requirements: Everyone understands what’s needed and why.
  • Shared Accountability: No person gets all the credit or all the blame.
  • Business Objectives: If everything above is done well, business objectives are accomplished.

Teams work better when they understand why they’re doing something. When the team understands the value upfront, they can accomplish the vision more effectively.

Developing Your People

When you focus on providing new, beneficial opportunities for your people, you are building a team that is happy and excited to do the work required for better product creation.

Dr. Keith specifically mentions TDIndustries, a successful mechanical construction company in Dallas. Consistently listed in Forbes 100 Best Companies to Work For, their mission statement doesn’t focus on financials or industry-leading technology but on ensuring it’s a company focused on the growth of its people. 

Take a look at TDIndustries’ mission statement for yourself:

“We are committed to providing outstanding career opportunities by exceeding our customers’ expectations through continuous aggressive improvement.”

Their belief—and success—is founded on the principle that if you build into your employees, they’ll take better care of your customers, which leads to a thriving business.

Coaching, Not Controlling

The best way to develop your people isn’t through controlling them but through consistent coaching and mentoring.

In the top-down model, everyone assumes the manager is there to control the organization. Giving orders doesn’t mean that people understand what’s expected of them or even that they’ll be willing and able to carry it out. 

It’s better to take the time to ensure that your people understand what needs to be done and why, and that they’re willing and able to do it. 

This is only achieved through empathetic coaching and mentoring. You want to engage your team and inspire them actively.

“Power-oriented leaders want to make people do things,” Dr. Keith said. “Servant leaders want to help people do things.”

Unleashing the Energy and Intelligence of Others

With a servant leadership approach, you tell your team members that you value their experiences and insights and trust them to make decisions independently. 

As we mentioned, you hired the people on your team because you believe they excel at what they do and can deliver results. So why not allow them to contribute and showcase their abilities?

“In fact, everyone has power—everyone has time and talent and ability,” Dr. Keith said. “Everyone has the power to make a contribution to the organization. The question is whether we are going to let them use their power.”

By no means does servant leadership come naturally or even quickly. It’s a skill that must be developed over time and practiced daily. 

Ultimately, this practice can help your development teams become stronger and more confident and help your organization create better products for satisfied clients.

Want to learn more? Watch Jeff’s webinar on demand: Agile, Scrum, and the Traits of a Servant Leader