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In my work as a lean construction coach and facilitator I sometimes bump into resistance and pushback when trying to teach lean concepts and practice. The most common objection is something like “you don’t know how to do my job, and yet you’re here to teach me how to do it.” Or the more colorful variation of this concept might be “wait, this guy can’t even hang IKEA shelves in his house, and he’s here to teach me how to do my job?” My first thought whenever I hear this objection is always “ooh, this would be a great time to talk about Servant Leadership!”

So I usually ask: “Who knows how to make honey? Is it the bees or the beekeeper?” This simple question invariably sparks an interesting and lively conversation. You can literally see the light bulbs going off around the room.

As an amateur beekeeper I very much feel like a servant leader. I don’t tell pipefitters how to fit pipes, and sure enough I don’t tell bees how to make honey. Believe me, the last thing you want to do is upset 60,000… “coworkers”.

Instead, what I do as a “servant leader beekeeper” is grow my hive, make sure they have access to plenty of food and water, and I strive to keep my bees healthy and disease-free.

In short, I try to create the ideal conditions so that my bees can do their “bee job” at their best. In a nutshell, this is what a servant leader does. We strive to create the best conditions for our team to shine. Even if we don’t personally know how to do the work that our team is doing. A “traditional” leader might provide vision, guidance and motivation to improve business Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as customers, revenue, market share etc. In other words, a traditional leader’s service is to the business.

On the other hand, a servant leader focuses on people's growth and optimizes different KPIs such as learning, knowledge sharing, autonomy and even employee well-being. A servant leader’s obligation is to the people. When your people are more skilled, more knowledgeable and more motivated, they will take care of the business KPIs, simply because they will care more.

There are numerous papers and case studies on servant leadership, I recommend starting from this very comprehensive 2022 work that analyzes over 350 academic papers (see link on PubMed).

The consensus on the effects of servant leadership is that most teams report greater employee creativity and value co-creation (Lean is all about value, remember?), empowerment, clarity of purpose and performance. At the same time, workplace stress is reduced. Interestingly, another indicator known as WFC or “Work-to-Family-Conflict” has been measured, and results found that servant-led employees exhibited reduced work to family conflict and increased “Work to family positive spillover”, WFPS.

Ok, maybe you’re convinced. How can you be a less traditional and more servant leader? Author Larry C. Spears summarized the ten most important characteristics of a servant leader in his 2000 paper “Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders”. They are:

  • Listening. Learning to listen allows you to identify and clarify your team’s needs/wants.
  • Empathy. Learn to recognize everyone’s uniqueness. Remember that 1970s sitcom? “It takes diff’rent stroke to move the world”.
  • Healing. Mend fences, restore relationships.
  • Awareness. Learn to read what’s going on around you.
  • Persuasion. Learn to convince rather than coerce, be authoritative not authoritarian.
  • Conceptualisation. Stretch your thinking beyond the day-to-day operational goals and into broader, long-term concepts.
  • Foresight. Closely related to conceptualisation. Learn to identify the likely future outcomes of today’s decisions.
  • Stewardship. Take good care of your team and of the company, in that order.
  • Commitment to the growth of your people. Fujio Cho, former CEO of Toyota, famously said “first we build people, then we build cars”.
  • Community building. Provide opportunities for people to interact and connect beyond day-to-day work activities.

So there you have it. All of these actions will improve your team’s potency, i.e. “the belief shared by team members that the group is effective at achieving assigned results”, which is also a measure of a shared confidence and clarity of purpose.

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I'm a passionate Lean buff coming from the construction industry. Ask me how lean and agile methods can help your teams thrive in an ever-changing work landscape. I like wayfinding into uncharted territory, then coming back and tell clients "here, let me guide you through it. You're going to love this."