October 18

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Servant leadership is not sacrificial leadership

From the military into Product, Part 1

I spent nearly 11 years in the British Military. I started in Bomb Disposal and ended my service working on strategy in NATO. I made a huge amount of mistakes and learnt a great deal.

Among the many lessons I learnt, three things have stuck with me over my time in Product.

  1. Servant leadership is not sacrificial leadership
  2. No one is going to die in Product (for the most part)
  3. Brutal feedback is how you grow

Servant leadership is not sacrificial leadership

‘Serve to Lead’ is the motto of the UK’s Army Officer training academy, Sandhurst. This motto is drilled into you, every day for over a year. It is on the buildings, it is on the walls, it is on your uniform and you have lectures and read stories about how leaders espoused this value in life and death situation. When you go out into the field on training, and it’s your turn to play the role of an ‘officer’, you are expected to live this value. For example, on the rare occasion, you are fed together by army chefs, you are expected to make sure everyone else have eaten before you. 

On a slight diversion, unlike the USA or other armies, the bulk of your training is given by Sergeants – soldiers who have been in the army for around a decade and is responsible for your training. They are immensely experienced and are specially selected. One of the best lessons I ever got was, when faced with a tough decision, think that your training Sergeant is watching you make the decision.

After I left training, I took the guidance ‘serve to lead’ to heart. Every time there is something I could do for my soldiers, I did it. When we were on training, I would consistently take the ‘middle stag’ – the worst sentry duty in the middle of the night. It is tough, you break up your sleep and you are often fatigued during the day. I also made sure I was involved or took on the hardest work. I was physically fit, and getting ‘stuck-in’ won me the respect of my soldiers. I also took servant leadership to mean that I needed to fight hard for my soldiers. Get more promoted than anyone else, and object strenuously when I thought my unit or soldiers were being disadvantaged, devalued or their time wasted.

It took years, and a lot of mistakes for me to fully understand what servant leadership actual meant. Me fighting for ‘my team’ instead of being seen as good leadership, was often interpreted as challenging my superiors plans and opinions or promoting my interests over the greater good. By always ‘throwing myself on the grenade’, for example taking the most difficult work, I was often in no state to make good decisions, or lead soldiers. One example was working myself to exhaustion during my first tour of Afghanistan. While luckily my bad decisions did not result in any casualties, this was only due to sheer luck.

The lessons I have taken from this (and to be honest still learning) are.

  1. Serve your team, you are there to support them and help them be successful, but your credibility as a leader is also important, so pick your battles and make sure you are seen as constructive
  2. Do not sacrifice yourself all the time. Look after your health and mental well being, as no one else will and the more senior you are, the more people are impacted by your crappy decisions

My next blog, will cover perspective (most people will not face life or death decisions in product). I hope that in sharing my thoughts, it helps other, especially veterans, make the transition into Product.