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Learning What It Means to Become a Servant Leader

Leadership
Psychological Safety

13 July, 2021

Jose Muniz
Jose Muniz

VP of Engineering at People.ai

Jose Muniz, Vice President of Engineering at People.ai, remembers his growth as a servant leader as he rose through the ranks of the industry.

Problem

When I first became a tech lead many years ago, a mentor sent me an article about servant leadership. If you haven’t heard this term before, it refers to a leadership philosophy that focuses on leaders who serve their team, not the other way around. As a tech lead and manager, this was a perfect fit for me. Rather than “calling the shots”, I shared everything I heard from customers and senior leaders to keep the team aware of priorities, or even better, creating space for them to hear this directly; I focused on ensuring each person on my team understood how they could define a mission that would both be good for their personal growth as well as for the company.

However, as I contemplated my own career growth, I wondered if the philosophy of servant leadership could scale as I led larger teams. Most senior leaders that I had met thus far led with more traditional leadership styles, through the power of their vision or their charisma. Is there a role for servant leaders beyond front-line managers?

Actions taken

A servant leader takes a different stance than one used to working in a waterfall type of setting. They see each member of the team as working for themselves in a way; the employee's relationship with the organization is secondary to this. With you as their manager, you are able to help them to develop themselves, strengthening the relationship that you share in the process.

A true servant leader is able to connect the dots between this person’s ambitions and the needs and the objectives of the company as a whole. This was something that I felt came quite naturally to me. I learned to think less in terms of dazzling the team with some magical direction that I wanted to take them in. Instead, I sought to bring out the best in those around me in a realistic sense. This was really encouraging to me as I grew in my career. It was exciting to know that I had this power to influence and to develop others.

When I noticed an employee struggling to communicate, I had plenty of insight and context to step in with. I had more time to devote to learning about the organization and was able to pass my findings off to those still developing on the ground. Customer insight was suddenly finding its way into our back offices and reaching all of the right people. I relished the feeling of being this channel of communication. Together, we were able to map out the path ahead with everybody’s strengths and talents in mind.

I learned that, through servant leadership, I was able to cultivate a culture of humility that permeated throughout the organization. I wanted to be transparent, and I wanted everybody to have a voice. We held town halls and gave presentations in order to empower the team to care about what we were all doing together. I encouraged everybody that I was working with to focus on outcomes rather than processes.

Lessons learned

  • Servant leadership involves being there for your direct reports in tough times. You need to be present in order to help them navigate complex situations. This will provide some support through those challenges.
  • Early on, I worried about losing myself as I became more influential in my role. I have happily learned that there is no upper limit on what you can do for others as a servant leader. Those leaders who had helped me along the way, they’re still human, despite their career objectives.
  • Coaching and inspiring ICs is something that I hold at the top of my priorities. Sometimes, I may not always be able to give them a direct one-on-one, but I never fail to connect them with the mentor or leader suited to the task.

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