Servant Leadership: A Technology Leadership Model for Associations

Servant Leadership June 25, 2018 By: Rupen Shah

A good leader is like the shepherd who can lead the pack from behind. For technology leaders, servant leadership is a technique that puts the needs of others first—showing appreciation, sharing power, and listening without judging to rapidly deploy technology.

Associations and their members are becoming smarter, thanks to “the network effect” of collaborative technology tools that allow an ever-growing number of people to use a product or service, thereby increasing its value.

We see examples of technology and network-based advancements in the emergence of online communities, on-demand benefits and services, e-learning, and online certifications, not to mention new and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain.

Implementing the technology, however, can be a challenge, especially for the leader who defaults to the autocratic command-and-control model of management. “My way or the highway” simply isn’t suitable for associations. As technology leaders, we not only manage staff who directly report to us but we also have several external resources that we can tap into. At the same time, associations have volunteer members, who serve on committees and work as extended stakeholders of the organization. To engage these groups, we must develop the right kind of leadership model that maximizes the network effect.

Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is an interesting way to engage stakeholders and rapidly deploy major technology changes. It was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader,” an essay published in 1970. In his words, servant leadership “is characterized by leaders who put the needs of a group over their own. These leaders foster trust among employees by holding themselves accountable, helping others develop, showing appreciation, sharing power, and listening without judging. While serving and leading seem like conflicting activities, these leaders are effective initiators of action.”

Servant leadership is an interesting way to engage stakeholders and rapidly deploy major technology changes.

This kind of leadership has been making its way into a technology management approach known as the Agile. It’s a process known for being a fast-paced delivery model that breaks down big technology projects (software, networks, infrastructure, and cloud) into smaller pieces that add up to a team sprint. The goal is to reach the finish line and deliver a minimum viable product (MVP). Agile teams ride on “trains” that run at a certain velocity. When a team is “sprinting” inside the train, it means they are working to deliver the MVP for the next station stop.

Agile teams generally have 10 people and are shepherded by a Scrum master. In large associations, there might be several trains, and a release train engineer oversees Scrum masters of individual trains and builds the product at an enterprise level. For associations, this is a fitting technology model that allows several parts of the organization to get smarter by deploying technology in chunks.

Scrum Master

The Scrum master role within Agile exemplifies the servant leadership model. The Scrum master is not at the top of the pyramid working the traditional command-and-control functions. They are at the bottom of the totem pole working with internal and external actors who have a dotted-line responsibility to them. Their role is to facilitate and help the team define user stories and find points for progress that then lead to a sprint plan and eventually the MVP. The Scrum master resolves all the impediments that get in the way of understanding the organization’s integration path, process, and system architectural runaways. Traits needed to be a great servant leader include 

  • the ability to see the big picture
  • knowledge of emerging technology models and subject matter expertise
  • empathy and genuine concern for team members
  • awareness of organizational issues and bottlenecks.

Concerns for Servant Leaders

Scrum masters are tasked to ensure rigorous adoption of Scrum theory and its principles, but what if someone doesn’t play his or her part on the team? What if the servant leader wants to go one way, and the master another way? How are they able to remediate? Many people struggle in servant leadership roles because their legacy has been within command-and-control organizations. 

As a technology leader, I must always be cognizant of these challenges and build in some risk mitigation strategies. But in general, servant leadership can be a technology leadership model that provides optimum and just-in-time user experiences.


Rupen Shah

Rupen Shah is director of IT at the National Apartment Association and adjunct professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.