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This article was based on episode 017 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher.

The phrase “servant leadership” may sound paradoxical. After all, aren’t leaders typically the ones who are served? They’ve climbed up the professional ladder and therefore earned the privilege of directing those whom they manage.

And yet - leaders who put their teams first are the real rockstar managers. Almost everything you do as a manager can be influenced or framed by the mindset of serving your team: in the level of autonomy you provide, in how you invest in people’s growth, and in the culture of respect and gratitude that you build. When you put your team first, you unleash the potential of your people and soon it becomes clear there is no better style of leadership.


While servant leadership is a concept expressed by ancient leaders such as Lao-Tzu and Chanakya, the phrase “servant leadership” entered popular American consciousness in the 1970s. Robert K. Greenleaf worked for 40 years at AT&T, then the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. He coined the term in an essay called “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf wrote:

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

The Big Picture

What does it mean to put your team first? It means many things. But let’s start with how you adapt your style to enable each of your team members to be their best self. If your approach is one-size-fits-all or if you’ve functioned with the mentality that you’re “the boss” so your team members need to figure out how you like things, now’s the time to bid farewell to that thinking.

Here’s the deal: each person on your team needs something different from you at different times. For example:

  • Some need to be inspired

  • Some need details

  • Some need due dates and check ins

  • Some need to be let loose

With the servant leadership approach, your job as a manager changes from that of conductor to that of coach and cheerleader. As a conductor, you instruct people what to do, when to do it, and how to do it in order to get the ideal performance. Alternatively, as a coach and cheerleader, you provide structure, advice and support so each person develops the skills they need to succeed. In sports terms, you make some people practice free throws while others run sprints, and you cheer them on with motivational speeches while also holding them accountable.

I learned a lesson after some frustration with a team member missing details and dropping balls. My morning routine included a"brain dump" of everything I had on my mind. When I finally approached her about it, she admitted these "brain dumps" were hard to keep up with. Some items were tasks, and some were FYIs, and I wasn’t always clear about which were which. Also, I didn’t communicate the items in any logical order and I would introduce a new item before completing the last one, making it hard for her to accurately track the work.

So I began writing lists instead. We’d review the list for a few minutes in the morning, especially the more subtle or complex items. Rather than viewing the occasional balls she dropped as a problem on her end, I reframed it as an opportunity for me to do something different that would better set her up for success. This is shared power. This is servant leadership.


What kinds of behaviors does a servant leader exhibit? How can you grow into servant leadership?

Remove Roadblocks, Fight for Your Team, and Shield Your Team

If you work in a large organization, the bureaucracy can be suffocating. You must clear the path, keep things moving up above, and prevent unnecessary stressors for your team. Your job is to make your team’s work possible. When they run into trouble with people from a different department or a senior staff member, you must help troubleshoot the issue.

Here’s an example: One team I was working with had a member who was a ‘shared resource,’ meaning she spent about 20% of her time on a project outside her main responsibilities. As the team lead from that secondary project saw her great work, he kept giving her more and more. She mentioned to him that she was only supposed to give 20% to this team, but he brushed her off saying he wasn’t asking for a significant amount and she was capable of completing it.

After a few weeks, the woman went to her boss to explain the situation. Her boss immediately contacted the other team leader to discuss appropriate workloads, boundaries and use of this woman as a resource. It wasn’t an easy conversation, but it aligned everyone’s expectations going forward and resolved the situation.

That’s what great bosses do: tackle challenges, deal with others who may be demanding, and continuously request answers from higher up to push a process along. As a servant leader, you must fight for and protect your team in a myriad of ways. You secure the resources your team needs to do their work well. You advocate for the team as a whole and as individuals. You represent your team to others within the organization. You shield your team from distractions and other unhelpful situations. You step up even if it’s uncomfortable, and even if it means spending some of your social capital or working harder or longer so that your team members endure less negative drama.

Prioritize the Person and Their Ability Over Your Convenience. And Coach Them

There are times when a team member will come to you with issues they’re looking to you to solve. This is a management concept called “passing the monkey,” in which other people try to get the “monkey” off their back and onto yours instead.

The question is: what do you do when someone comes to you to pass the monkey? In some cases, you could give them the answer or do the work for them, which might be easier or faster, but may not serve you or them or the team in the long run.

Rockstar managers act like coaches and advisors. They don’t take on all the work and all the stress themselves, but rather spend time with their team members in a supportive role: problem solving or planning and enhancing ideas.

When someone comes to you with a problem, try leading with questions, like: Tell me about the situation? What about it is frustrating, blocking your progress, or challenging? Why does that problem exist? How have you tried approaching it thus far?

Many people will talk themselves into a solution with some guided questioning. And even if they don’t, you’re gathering relevant information which you can then use in your advisory role to offer ideas or solutions.


Servant leadership benefits people over ego. When you can make a few small adjustments in how you act towards and with your team, your people will have the space and confidence to do their best work.

Trust Your Team

As a servant leader, you generate buy in and empower people to be part of the work, not just do the work. Great managers are not prescriptive - they trust their team members to make good decisions and run with them. This means that sometimes they will fail. You're role is ensure they fail in small, safe ways, enabling learnings to help them succeed in the long run. If you stop them before they get started, saying “that won’t work because...,”

they'll take few risks, start to doubt themselves, and miss out on opportunities to learn. And besides, maybe they know something you don’t, or have some skill or experience that will allow them to succeed in ways you couldn't.

Hire good people, invest in their growth, and then let them do their work.

Speak Last in Meetings

People are acutely aware of power dynamics in meetings. As the most senior person in a meeting, you must make space for others to share their ideas, even if you have a lot to say. Offer the floor to your colleagues and ask for their opinions before you share your thinking.

I hear from many managers that they want their teams to talk more openly in meetings. Part of that starts by you talking less and talking last, or at least later in the meeting. When you share first as the boss, you set the tone and without intention, drive the conversation in that direction. Some people will not share ideas that contradict the boss because they’re afraid or uncomfortable. Other people will simply assume there isn’t room for discussion or other ideas aren't welcome now that the boss has put a stake in the ground.

Be Willing to Be Wrong

Your team doesn’t expect you to be perfect or have all the answers, but they do expect (or at least hope) that you’ll listen with genuine curiosity and evolve your thinking as you learn. I’ve met managers who fear they won’t be seen as smart or will lose the respect of their team if they admit they don’t have the right answer from the start. That’s just not true. Change your opinion and admit when you don't know something. It's more important to reach a great resolution than to be right.

Please, please ask your colleagues for feedback every time you have a one-on-one or complete a project. If you don’t ask, you’re not going to get it. And even when you do ask, you’re still likely to hear crickets. But on that occasion when you do get feedback, accept it gracefully. Be overly thankful even if you feel defensive or disagree. After you've had time to reflect on it, figure out what you'll do differently so your team member knows you heard him. This will encourage additional feedback in the future.

Lastly, be vulnerable and role model servant leadership to your team. Apologize when you make a mistake. It happens. Acknowledge when you dropped a ball. We’re all human. Of course you should have high standards for yourself and your team, but great managers know how to help others be better, and the only way they can do that is if they also recognize in themselves the opportunities to be better.

How might you move towards servant leadership with your team this week?

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This article was based on episode 017 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

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