Being a Servant Leader in a Remote World

Learn tricks and tips on how to be an engaged servant leader in a remote setting. From a Fraction CTO and servant leader.


Mike Conely

1/27/20234 min read

a chalkboard board with a chalkboard saying leadership
a chalkboard board with a chalkboard saying leadership

As coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, the servant leader is a servant first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. A lot has been written about this leadership style. I will not reiterate all of that here. However, I will provide a high-level summary of what it means to be a servant leader.

Being a servant leader means you make sure you take into consideration people first. All decisions and actions must consider if they allow individuals to grow and strive. As a leader, you care about and listen to your team. You consciously allow decisions and ideas to start from the bottom up. When working towards a specific goal or problem, you let the team find solutions for it.

Essential to being successful as a servant leader is to build real meaningful relationships with your team(s). This can be a challenge when a team is fully or partially remote. This can be more problematic for teams that are new to working remotely.

Here are a few of my ideas to be a successful servant leader in a remote world.

Spend time getting to know each other

As you are new to leading a team, or as you get new team members, spend an hour or so with each team member just getting to know each other. Preferably, do this within the first week or two. Be sure to not just share your professional backstory but to also share your personal story. Let the team member know you are human. Let them know you have family, like sci-fi, like hiking, etc. Spend at least twenty minutes sharing who you are first. Then ask them to do the same. When they are sharing listen and ask questions. And perhaps take notes to remember things later.

Face first

Use video conferencing, if bandwidth allows. Set this as an expectation for the entire team. I have sent out branded hats as a perk but also as a shield against bad hair day excuses. I have also purposely had bad hair days on video calls to show it’s ok.

Ensure you have one-on-ones

Have one-on-ones with your direct reports weekly. Have one-on-ones with skip-one reports monthly. The best advice I can give one-on-ones is not to make one-on-ones status update meetings. One-on-ones are your regular chance to build and maintain your relationships. If you need status updates, schedule a different meeting, or require summaries or reports on a regular schedule. I would recommend coming up with a very loose template for the time.

For example:

  • 10 minutes for anything the team member wants to discuss

  • 10 minutes for anything you want to discuss

  • 10 minutes to check on professional development

This is a very loose agenda. Share it and make clear and make that clear to the team member that it is adaptable. If you build meaningful relationships, that first block of time may end up taking the whole meeting occasionally. That is OK. I have had staff talk to me about personal problems, family issues, ask for coaching as a father, share sad news. I have had more than one individual cry and I have even shed a tear with one. When you make a meaningful relationship, you will get some of this. And that is a good thing. People tend to thrive when they have meaningful relationships.

For things you want to discuss, it could be a new company strategy, HR info, etc. But it is not feedback. Feedback should be done separately and not in one-on-ones unless the individual explicitly asks for it. Giving unsolicited positive or negative feedback in one-on-ones can set up some staff to fear the one-on-ones. I believe there are better strategies for giving feedback as a servant leader. See my post Servant Leadership - Giving Feedback for more info on my thoughts.

Have team building activities

Randomly and after major accomplishments, hold remote team-building activities. This can be games like conversations. Maybe do a team viewing of a movie (with a service that allows watching together).

If you hold staff meetings, dedicate some time to a team-building activity. You can also include a “getting to know you” agenda item, where each person shares information about two different things you define in advance. For example: name of first pet, a famous person you have met, type of first vehicle, favorite food, favorite game, etc.

Randomly have conversations with individuals

At least once a week, I have a random conversation with a team member. This will be used to just check in, and I do not schedule them. I find a time I can have a conversation (it is on my calendar to ensure I have time) and then I see who is free. During these, I will ask how the individual is doing. Since I have gotten to know them, I may ask about something specific to them, like about their family. During covid-19 I also check in on how they are doing with all the physical/mental/social effects.

Define out-of-band metrics and reporting

Define what metrics or status reporting you require and give advanced warning and a regular schedule. I like to schedule 30 minutes on the responsible party’s calendar for the morning of the day I want the information. This allows the remote individual to have more flexibility on when they work on the metrics but sets a target time to work on if they have not and a deadline. I do this instead of requiring status reports in one-on-ones.


Define a way to give instant and public kudos. I have done this by implementing workflows in Slack that send a formatted Kudo Direct Message to the individual being recognized and CC’s in all functional areas team channels. This can be done with other tools, depending on what the team uses.

Lunch and Learns

Encourage team members to put on lunch and learns maybe quarterly. The lunch and learn could be on any topic the team member has a passion about. Maybe you have a globe trotter that will put together something about a trip. Or you might have someone passionate about new technology. The topic could be anything. This is an opportunity for learning and team building.

These are just some of the ideas I have for approaching being a remote servant leader. This list is not exhaustive, and every idea may not work in every situation. I would be interested in hearing ideas from others about being an effective servant leader in a remote world.