Servant Leadership and the Organizational Chart

A Servant leadership, a term added to the lexicon of Leadership by Robert Greenleaf in the 20th Century and popularized in Software Engineering through the rise of agile movement, flips the organizational chart on its head. A Servant leader is someone who serves those that they lead. Instead of blindly ordering people to complete a task, we serve them and aid them in the removal of impediments to the completion of their work. This means putting the people you lead first. While most people understand that this means putting those you lead ahead of yourself, this also means that you should put them ahead of everything else, including your boss.

Servant leaders, in my experience, are people pleasers. They want to be helpful and do all that they can do to help other people out. And that includes when they are given orders from leadership. But when you have many competing priorities, from your team, your boss and the organization, which do you prioritize first?

Let’s imagine a scenario where we have 4 tasks, one to serve those we lead, one task from our leader, one tasks from the broader organization, and a task that we’ve identified on our own. For this question let’s assume that all tasks take equal time and are of equal value. Which of these tasks should we complete first?

A traditionalist will prioritize their boss’s request first. The boss is the one who “signs the cheeks”, so to speak. Pleasing them will be high on their list. They’ll likely prioritize their organization’s ask next, seeking to respect ‘the chain of command’.

A TRUE servant leader, I will argue, will prioritize the task from their team first, as serving them comes first in their mind, then serving the wider organization. If Servant leadership flips the organization chart, empowering their team is more important than following the ‘chain of command’.

A people pleaser, on the other hand, will try to get it all done, aiming to please everyone. As the old cliche goes, “when you try to please everyone, you please no one.”

True Servant Leadership will require ruthless prioritization. It will require you to prioritize items. I am a firm believer that your priorities should match your values. Everything you do, including prioritization of your tasks, should be rooted in your values if you are being true to yourself. If you are unconsciously prioritizing tasks, consider what choices you are making. This may reveal something about what you value or show that you are not being true to yourself.

And the answer may not be what you expect.