Servant leadership is getting a digital transformation

Servant leadership means a lot to me. It’s not just a leadership principle that I, personally, follow—but it saved my company. It saved Softway.

This is not a hyperbolic statement. My story is intertwined with the principles of servant leadership. It changed me, it changed the way I run my company, and it’s changed all of my relationships. Until this point, many aspects of servant leadership that I follow have required face-to-face interactions. But with COVID-19 restrictions making us practice social distancing and employing remote-working, I’ve had to rethink what being a servant leader looks like in a digital space.

Leadership, not management

Before we get to my story, I want to explain what I believe the definition of servant leadership to be.

Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. – Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

When I first read this, this was a radical thought to me. I am from India, and in our culture, classism is very prevalent; it’s not desirable to be a servant. But this philosophy is based on the belief that by serving others, not only will you strengthen businesses, but you can change the world. That idealism completely flipped what I believed on its head.

As I’ve started practicing this over the past few years, I’ve come to recognize that this is not a popular style of leadership. I know this because when I began my own leadership transformation in late 2015, I did it out of necessity. I embraced it more as a challenge for myself because I had nothing to lose at that point—but everything to gain.

One of the first things I had to understand was that these principles had very little to do with my actual management style. Yes, the resulting mind shift from this philosophy absolutely does inform the way I manage today, but I did not start off thinking that way. This leadership style has opened my eyes and forced me to look at my people—which is what leaders do.

How I started my journey

Admittedly, I started practicing the tenets of servant leadership incorrectly and for the wrong reasons. Softway was facing an existential crisis and my employees were unmotivated. I didn’t know where to begin, but I knew something had to change in order to preserve Softway.

So, I started with a decision to act selflessly. Anything that felt selfless—like abandoning my office and working in the bullpen with my team, buying and eating lunch with my employees, and writing them thank you notes with gift cards enclosed became part of my repertoire. Notice, I said act. We’ll touch on that more, later.

My thought was to change myself. I wanted to see if I could do it—and if I could, how would people respond? And honestly, they did not respond well, at first. People thought it was bizarre that I offered to share my homemade lunch with them. People didn’t believe my thank you notes were genuine. And that’s because I still treated my team poorly. Amid my “acts” of servant leadership, I yelled and lashed out at them frequently.

That was the management style I was afraid to let go of. Distrust and a closed mindset led me to verbally abuse those that I worked with. And I’m embarrassed to say that it was a toxic environment. That’s why my actions were met with suspicion and jadedness. There’s so much more about my story that I’d like you to know, and you can find more detail by watching an interview I did earlier this year.

Being, not doing

There was a shift; an imperceptible but very real change when I made the transition from “acting” like a servant leader to “becoming” a servant leader. That change happened when my mindset caught up with my actions. I stopped thinking about what selfless people “do” and more on what they believe. But I was only able to go through this mind shift after a very raw meeting with my India team.

After “acting” selflessly for a few months, I polled my team. “Do you trust me?” was what I asked. A simple question, I thought. But when the team told me no—I broke down. I didn’t think that could possibly be an answer I received. But that raw conversation sparked real change inside of me. I went home that night and took a hard look in the mirror. My team didn’t trust me. How do I change that?

The next day, I went into the office and apologized. I went to my team, and with tears in my eyes, I earnestly said I was sorry. I asked them to forgive me for my old behaviors, and understand that my actions were truly trying to inspire transformation. This was not a set-up. These weren’t traps for them to fall into. I was actually trying to change myself.

This apology was the key that unlocked the door to trust. My team couldn’t possibly move forward if old wounds hadn’t been acknowledged. This apology is what a lot of people are waiting for, and you have to swallow some pride to do it. And not a half-assed apology either—you really need to be sorry.

How do we do this digitally?

I needed to set the stage and tell you how I got here before I told you what I’m doing to practice servant leadership in our current digital landscape. If you know what I’ve been through, I can hopefully save you some time and energy by learning from my missteps. Because, as I’ve mentioned—actions alone will not yield fruit.

  • Put others’ needs first

Check-in with your teams—and not just within business hours. Set aside time to call, text, or video chat with your team to see how they are doing, how can you help them, and just be a listening ear. Given the circumstances a lot of us are facing in the midst of this crisis, your employees are likely willing to be open and share more, especially if they see you making the effort.

  • Be humble and practice gratitude

Many employees are dealing with the extraordinary - working remotely with their spouse and kids around them, including homeschooling at the same time. Sharing my lunch was a big part of my journey, so I wanted to continue that. Pick a few team members each week, buy their lunch, and have it delivered.

  • Know that in serving others, no task is beneath you

Now, more than ever, you need to swallow your pride. Scheduling your own meetings, taking meeting notes, or picking up mail and deliveries at the office are small things you can do yourself and show your team that you are with them. Don’t ask others to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.

  • Assume good intent

Digital communication can easily lead to misunderstandings. Not being able to see or read body language and facial expressions are an innate part of remote meetings, virtual calls, chat messages, and emails. But assume good intent from the person on the other end and seek clarity when you need it—don’t jump to conclusions.

  • Look for the good in others and find the weakness in yourself

A true leader takes responsibility for their team and helps them achieve goals. Lean on the strengths of your team and figure out where you can help them succeed professionally and with clients. Listen to what your teams have to say about your leadership, and improve where needed.

  • Respond instead of react

We are living in a highly volatile time—circumstances are changing weekly, sometimes daily. Stress from these situations can make it easy to react out of emotion or adrenaline, but you owe it to your teams to respond, not react. Take time to think through what you want to say and what your team needs to hear. Then craft a message and pick the appropriate channel to deliver it.

  • Take care of others and they will take care of you

Ultimately, do your best as a leader to take care of others with no expectations in return. Trust that your team will do whatever they must in order to take care of you and the company. Not out of fear, but for the love of their teammates and company. Creating a culture of trust and certainty right now will go far in creating goodwill for your company.

The reward is in the work

If you haven’t been practicing servant leadership, this is the perfect time to begin this change. Whether you’re a leader of 10 or 10,000, you have a responsibility right now to give your teams a strong leader—especially during this time of crisis.

Strength doesn't come by way of putting people down, demeaning them, or bringing forcefulness into the equation. Strength is building better trust, fostering more inclusion, and being empathetic to the needs of people struggling in unimaginable ways. Servant leadership has led to better relationships and more open communication—which is what we need right now. Transformation usually requires a catalyst, and I can’t think of one better than a global pandemic.

Be patient with yourself. It will take time and a lot of introspection to make this change. The work of becoming a servant leader, evolving, and improving is never done. Set your intentions and mindset before you embark on change. And if there’s one last piece of advice I can give you—do it because you want to help others. Because it’s the right thing to do. A selfish motive will be its own reward.