The myth of servant leadership in tech

Perhaps it’s the result of publications in magazines like Forbes and Huffpost, or the claim that servant leadership creates more productive employees, but more and more startup executives are beginning to define themselves as servant-leaders.

In theory, I strongly support servant-leadership. I believe that when you nurture your team and give them room to grow, they’ll exceed your expectations. A manager’s job is to facilitate growth and learning while helping their employees establish boundaries, learn how to receive — and give — constructive feedback, and find their place in an organization. It’s only through this type of leadership that companies can be truly successful: when their people feel intellectually, emotionally, and physically safe.

Yet many startup executives defining themselves as servant-leaders are instead using the concept to justify toxic working conditions. Where impossibly long hours are the status quo, employees are taught to bemoan their failures and minimize their successes, and market-rate salaries are a pipe dream.

Servant leadership is predicated on a desire for authority rather than power. As you might imagine, servant-leaders focus on growing their people and communities, rather than a primary ambition of accumulating and exercising power.

Reading this, it should be pretty clear whether you — or your boss — fall neatly into the servant-leader category. But if it’s not, below are a few things to look for.

Imagine you’ve just started at a company and your manager, as well as her manager, all work the “9–9–6” (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week). At every all-staff meeting, people are praised for working well past midnight and over weekends.

How do you respond? In all likelihood, you too begin to work longer hours; you start skipping lunch breaks, opting instead to eat at your desk. You arrive at the office or your work station an hour earlier and leave an hour later. Perhaps you even go back to your computer when you get back home.

While this strategy works for some people, most of us are most productive when we have ample time to rest and recover. Yet startup culture is renowned for its long hours and personal sacrifice (be it mental or physical health, relationships, or any other part of your life).

Yes, startup founders often work around the clock, and for good reason. They have investors to answer to, a million people asking for help, demos to prepare for, reports to draft, payroll to finish. They also have a lot of skin in the game in the form of equity — meaning that if their company does well, they’ll be paid handsomely. This isn’t true for (most) startup employees.

The media have made parallels between servant-leadership and leading by example, including the notorious workaholic Elon Musk. Yet the fundamental principle of servant-leadership is put your people first. Not sacrifice. Not burnout.

We all know that person who talks up their long list of accomplishments when in reality have accomplished very little at all. Especially for those of us working in the startup space, exaggeration of one’s achievements often seems par for the course. CEOs stretch the truth to secure funding from investors; marketing managers name-drop major companies they have as users to increase brand power; CFOs present the best usage and revenue numbers to their board; etc.

Humility, then, may seem like a welcome change. And if practiced in good faith, it can be. Yet it can also manifest as an unhealthy ideal, in which it ends up being a way to discourage employees from personally acknowledging their successes.

Imagine you’ve just run a major campaign that drove a 250% spike in signups. The campaign leads to thousands of new leads for the sales team, a major increase in monthly recurring revenue, and helps the marketing team refine their strategy. You probably want to celebrate, right?

In a culture with “toxic humility,” your manager may chastise you for speaking up about your accomplishments. You may learn to keep your mouth shut. And this can lead to a significant negative mental toll, in which an employee begins to doubt their own effectiveness and are too fearful to advocate for a raise or promotion.

It’s true that some startup founders will forego a salary or take a significant pay cut in order to grow their business. This signals to investors that they’re committed to the company and willing to do what it takes to succeed.

While many of us are awed by the leader who’s willing to give up money for passion, what we don’t see is what’s so often behind them. Perhaps they sold a company or had a high-paying job at a big tech firm and don’t need the money urgently. They also have a lot of equity in the company, which will pay dividends if they exit.

Regardless of the situation, if you get hired on and someone tells you “you’re making more money than the founders,” or brings up the fact that the founders are making little to no money, it’s probably a red flag.

Sure, it could signal that they’re truly invested in the business. But it could also be a way to justify your lower-than-market salary or convince you to work twice as hard as you would in a comparable role in a bigger company.

Perhaps one of the most toxic issues that arise is a commitment to appearances. In the early days of a company, executives are the brand, and their personal image can be as important as the company’s. Particularly in today’s economic and social climate, appearing as a servant-leader could be seen as a way to help a startup founder’s public persona. It could also help to attract top talent and a diverse work pool.

But if the appearance doesn’t have legs to stand on, employees coming in under the guise of a commitment to diversity in thought, perspective, and background could be emotionally and psychologically impacted. For example, if a company touts the importance of diversity of thought but internally refuses to acknowledge gender pronouns or allows/makes questionable comments about sexual orientation, it could be damaging in the long term to employees.

So…does a servant-leader in tech actually exist? As an optimist, I’m going to say yes. And I’ve certainly heard of a few leaders (and met a couple) that I’d hasten a guess probably are.

My goal isn’t to denounce startup leaders or the servant-leader ideology. My goal is for us to be critical of our own philosophies and actions, as well as those around us. It’s easy for someone to say they believe something but in practice adhere to a completely different ideology. And that just becomes a race to the bottom.

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