Servant Leadership In Software Organizations

The concept of ‘servant leadership’ has experienced a resurgence in recent years and in our most recent nomination process for top women leaders in SaaS of 2019, the term appeared numerous times to describe the means by which a particular nominee had profound positive impact on her organization.  Software tends to be an industry comprised of analytical, focused and high-achieving individuals, and while many thrive in autonomous work environments, what we seem to have uncovered is that the experience of collaborating with a servant leader can leave an indelible mark.  The most effective servant leaders exhibited four key characteristics.

A Focus on Others First

Nominees who were described as having an authentic concern for their colleagues needs before their own were generally thought of as worthy of being deemed a leader.  What was particularly impressive was when that outward focus extended to every person the nominee came into contact with, not just those with whom they had a direct relationship. 

Individuals within an organization gained the most respect and influence when their being in service was demonstrated in a variety of ways, for example in taking the time to mentor fellow colleagues, going out of their way for a customer or by participating in causes outside of the company.  It turns out that the care and dedication an individual put into each of her relationships had a ripple effect on those in direct contact and those witnessing or hearing of the acts of service.

They Are Irreplaceable

To be a true servant leader, an individual must be integral to the functioning of a group.  In the cases we read about, the nominee was the person the group looked to for guidance for she had great experience and knowledge in her particular domain of expertise.  And without her involvement in the group, it was most likely cease to function in any meaningful or effective way.  Interestingly, the ‘servant leader’ term in part originated in Herman Hesse’s book “Journey to the East” and in that story the main character Leo is a servant whom all other servants critically relied upon.

In essence, the servant leader is the glue that holds a group or organization together.  She is often times the individual whom all people prefer to communicate with because of her unique effectiveness in paying close attention to the needs and wants of others combined with the ability to understand the potential complexities and appropriate solutions to the task at hand.  Without a high degree of knowledge and skill, the servant is no longer a leader.


In his book “Good to Great”, Jim Collins speaks of a Level 5 Leader, a rare type of leader who exhibited a profound sense of humility – the exact opposite of the CEOs of large corporations with big egos and who had developed themselves into celebrity figures over time.  These Level 5 Leaders were able to build truly outstanding companies that endured over time, frequently several decades, hugely outperforming not only the market but all of their peers. 

What’s true in Collins’ study is also true for any individual, not just a CEO, who leads a group of people.   Top down directives to subordinates is not the most effective means to lead, in fact it can be detrimental.   It is those individuals who take in feedback, are open to being vulnerable and frequently who are not the loudest voice in the room, who are the individuals who garner true respect from others.  It is humility, which requires more discipline to exhibit, and leads to admiration.  Ego, on the other hand, comes freely to most and tends to generate unnecessary problems. 

Consistency of Standards

While nominees often had exceptional emotional intelligence and were honed in on ensuring their colleagues and the group as a whole were inspired to do great work, they were also able to communicate that agreed upon standards should be met on a consistent basis.  In part, servant leaders communicate by example, they hold themselves to high standards and do not waver from performing to those standards.  And with regards to their colleagues, they are keen observers of their colleagues actions and the results they post.  By observing, the group is always aware that nothing goes unnoticed. 

So while the servant leader does not necessarily command their troops with stern directives, they communicate high standards and hold themselves and their colleagues accountable.  The always present watchful eye and backbone of consistency is yet another way an individual transforms herself into the most influential person in a group or organization. 

Becoming a servant leader is no easy feat and takes years to become.  Each of the characteristics listed above, even if achieved on a standalone basis, would be an impressive accomplishment.  But to have all four – a focus on others, deep capabilities, humility and consistent high standards – can make one a truly exceptional leader.