Turn the pyramid: the definition, practices and path to become a serving leader

You may have read about leadership, how you should lead by example, how to listen, how to communicate, etc., but one thing that stands out is the fact that no one or perhaps very few will tell you the naked truth: To lead is to serve.

It does sound paradoxical, right? Well, only if you take the word “Serve” in its superficial sense. Serving others does not mean submitting to others in any way, you can still serve and be a leader, or a better way to put it, is that you can lead by serving others.

“You qualify to be first by putting other people first.” — The Serving Leader by Ken Jennings

How it all hit me

When I started building tech teams for startups in a very challenging part of the world (in terms of resources, funding, and processes), the only way to get something up and running was to execute with minimal time to think or plan.

This meant:

Extreme pressure on hiring, training, developing people

Setting up processes, understanding legacy code, producing new code, fixing inherited bugs and issues, releasing to production

A workforce that is not well exposed to the latest trends in tech and product

Despite all that, I managed to build three teams of different sizes for three companies over the course of 6 years. We managed to do this in a short period of time and in uncertain business environments – yet we retained our talent and kept them happy and fulfilled.

The first team I built was at Careem in the UAE, the Payments and Incentives team. We started this team at a time when Careem hit a continuously exponential growth — The Golf Stick we liked to call it, due to its shape on the chart — the team of 7 engineers was built under heavy fire, members joining and being asked to deliver on bug fixes, detected fraud, slow payment responses, downtime(s) and fire fighting from every angle.

The second team, a team of six engineers, was for a new startup I joined as the CTO, Designer-24. A fashion rental ecommerce business built on top of an outdated version of Magento, hacked to work as a rental engine instead of traditional ecommerce. We had to hire our team in Lebanon due to funding restrictions and we had to move fast on hiring, training, building new modern tech and deliver features for a running business.

The third team, is Washmen’s tech team, also in Beirut, Lebanon. A team of 15 engineers and UX /UI experts to handle all tech and product development of Washmen which operates in the UAE. It is an on-demand laundry service powered with two in-house systematized laundry facilities. The new tech team had to deal with customer products, driver products, facility products and a lot of integrations ranging from marketing tools to facility machinery.

Looking back at it, I didn’t know how we did all of that. When you are cruising in a speedboat, it is not easy to look at things holistically and understand it. Building teams while under fire can be very overwhelming. But in a recent meeting, with one of our senior engineers at Washmen, I was able to see it clearly. I understood what was the driving force behind all these experiences.

The conversation in that meeting was about how he can become a better leader, how he can be perceived in a better way by his fellow colleagues, etc. I sat there wondering how can I explain to him what I do and what I have been doing for all these years. And the conversations I had with colleagues, friends, seniors, family members, and my wife finally came together. The dots connected. I realized that the recurring theme of those conversations around my personality and leadership style and characteristics is that I genuinely believe that my job as a leader, as a manager, is to serve.

“If serving is below you, leadership is beyond you.” — Anonymous

Know your Principles

I think behavior and attitude are driven by principles carved deep down within us, developed over a long period of time. To be effective leaders, one needs to be in tune with these first principles. If you aren’t, you should work towards developing them by asking yourself certain questions:

Do you believe every person (regardless of how junior or senior) deserves civility, trust, and respect?

Do you value people and relationships first, and results second?

How important do you think you are?

Do you believe in selflessness and humility?

How patient, persistent yet tolerant are you?

Are you a good listener? A good observer?

Are you a hard worker and a constant learner?

Are you in touch with the actual level of your qualifications? Are you the best that you can be at what you are teaching?

Do you feel like you have to pretend in certain circumstances to be liked by others and team members?

Practice your principles

In order for these principles to resonate they need to be applied in real life, real scenarios, they actually need to be applied all the time. You need to really believe in these principles or else you will slip and that’s not a favorable option for a leader. Here are some major applications of those principles:

Never pretend to be anything but what you truly are, mirror your thoughts & feelings. Do not act by a principle you don’t really believe in. You will be caught on the spot. Develop that principle instead so that it becomes natural and a part of you

You don’t have to know it all, it is impossible that you know it all

Make sure you equip your team with what and who they need to do their job. That should be the top priority on your list. You need to keep a check on the goals to be achieved vis-a-vis the team’s needs. If you can provide the right motivation, training, and tools to reach these goals at the speed and timeline needed then do it otherwise you seek immediate support from someone who can. It can be a more senior person in the organization, a group of people a third-party or online resources.

Don’t force commitments. Establish a road-map and vision and let the team assume responsibility. If you hired the right people with the right mindset and gave them the autonomy they need, you will see them taking initiatives and proposing changes that actually align with your vision. You just need to mentor, guide and mature their ideas through the journey.

Allow constructive opposition and be at ease when you face it. Constructive opposition to your thoughts or even counter offers and ideas are a natural part of the progress of any team, if you suppress or undervalue these things and not discuss them and come up with proper conclusions, you can say goodbye to any form of performance or motivations.

Promise what you surely can deliver. Deliver on your work, commitments & promises first, don’t expect people to fulfill their obligations before you are actually fulfilling yours to the maximum extent you can.

Solving any problem, require context and a fresh start. Put any discussion in context first. Don’t judge or prejudge based on previous experiences or prejudices.

Be a pro-active listener, observe for extended periods and act accordingly. This allows you to stay ahead of problems in your team, you will start connecting dots and addressing character issues and a lot more before having to deal with the consequences of it. Take thoughts, opinions, or any form of dissent very seriously and engage in seeking resolutions to those actively.

Be fair in how you deal with team members, but personalize the experience as much as possible based on how you read each member.

Be the first one to jump in and help and at the same time, start encouraging team members too to have a similar mindset. You should, in fact, encourage your team members to follow all the practices we’re discussing here. Be the leader who creates order out of chaos, calm out of a storm, and good vibes out of negative ones especially when sh*t hits the fan.

Someone will break the trust or respect you gave them but it does not mean that you should do the same. Stay true to your principles, try to help this person understand their mistake and explain how they can improve. If they don’t, it means they cannot be part of the culture you’re building.

Begin your journey

Some of you might be thinking that all of this is pretty obvious stuff. That’s not the case when you’re in your day-to-day. It takes a fraction of a second to lose your temper, say something hurtful to someone, put someone in a corner (metaphorically I hope) and it is easy to pretend, to take things personal, to say go figure, to pretend as if you are too busy now and you can’t mentor, help, fix, or just listen.

This is a journey where at each step of each day you have to step back and ask yourself, what do I believe in, what principles guide my life, thoughts, actions, words, etc.

It is not a journey where you can live with one foot in and one foot out. People will notice that you are hesitant, untrue to your own-self. You must know that it is all about how others perceive your intent, purpose, behaviors, responses, and decisions. How others see you, feel about your leadership style, and what beliefs they form about whether to trust and follow your leadership. It takes only few mistakes if not only one and you lose the trust.

“Any leader is only as good as her or his team’s desire to be led by them.” — Anonymous

Are you ready to turn the pyramid upside down and serve?

This article was first published here and has been reproduced on MENAbytes with the author’s permission. 

Ibrahim Bou Ncoula
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