Cover Image for The common thread between Politicians, Product Managers, and Military Leaders: Servant leadership
Stephiney Foley
Stephiney Foley

The common thread between Politicians, Product Managers, and Military Leaders: Servant leadership

“What do you believe are the root causes of homelessness in our community, and what steps do you think should be taken to address them effectively?”

"Do you believe that the allocation of funds to the police department in our community is balanced and effectively meeting the needs of both public safety and community well-being? If elected or re-elected, what specific measures would you take to ensure that police funding aligns with community priorities and addresses any concerns or gaps that exist?"

This week I had the opportunity to attend a local political activation event for Maritza Rivera's campaign (thanks Tali Rausch for the invitation), which marked my official foray into Seattle politics. As I listened attentively to Maritza eloquently address challenging issues such as public safety, homelessness, and police reform, it occurred to me that the qualities I seek in my political leaders closely align with those exhibited by exceptional product managers and respected military officers.

In today's society, we often view politicians, product managers, and military officers as distinct professions with little in common. However, if you look closer, the common thread of a great politician, product manager, and military leader all share a related leadership trait: servant leadership. It is this leadership style that lies at the core of their success and effectiveness. I want to explore how servant leadership unites these seemingly disparate professions and why it is crucial for their exceptional performance.

What is Servant leadership?

The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

During my time as a cadet at West Point, I had the privilege of encountering an exceptional squad leader named Dan Hyde (USMA ’07, KIA, Iraq). Unlike the traditional approach of instilling military values through coercion and strict discipline, Dan embraced a different style of leadership—one rooted in empathy, authenticity, and genuine care for his subordinates. He listened to our concerns, displayed kindness, and went above and beyond to understand and address our individual needs. Dan's leadership was based on a deep understanding of his team, allowing him to tailor his guidance and support accordingly. His approach fostered a positive and supportive environment, earning him the trust and loyalty of his subordinates. Despite his life being tragically cut short, Dan's leadership style of empathy, authenticity, and curiosity continues to resonate as one of the most significant leadership examples I have witnessed in my career.

From Dan's story, we can extract valuable lessons that align with the qualities we seek in our political leaders. Empathy, authenticity, respect, effective communication, self-reflection, and emotional intelligence are crucial for politicians to effectively serve their constituents. By embodying these attributes, politicians can build positive relationships, inspire trust, and establish themselves as true servant leaders. Respect and dignity should be at the forefront of their interactions, treating colleagues, subordinates, and constituents with courtesy and fairness. Effective communication, delivered in a manner that inspires and fosters understanding, is essential for conveying their vision and policies. Furthermore, self-reflection and emotional intelligence help politicians ensure that their actions and words align with a genuine respect for others.

What is the role of servant leadership in product management? Well, in my opinion, servant leadership is another way of describing a customer-obsessed product manager. Product managers, much like politicians, need to possess a customer-centric mindset and deeply empathize with their needs and pain points. By embracing the role of a customer advocate, product managers can better understand the challenges and aspirations of those they serve. This empathetic approach allows them to develop products that truly address customer needs. Additionally, effective product managers exhibit an ownership mentality, taking responsibility for the success of their products. PMs must demonstrate strategic thinking, making decisions aligned with overall company goals. Effective communication, both within cross-functional teams and with stakeholders, is crucial for product managers to articulate their vision and influence others. Results orientation, adaptability, and a focus on continuous learning are key traits that enable product managers to deliver successful outcomes.

As we examine these three professions more closely, we discover striking commonalities that go beyond specific skills or responsibilities. Leadership, decision-making, communication, problem-solving, stakeholder management, adaptability, vision, time and resource management, and accountability are shared aspects that politicians, product managers, and military officers all possess. These attributes form the foundation of servant leadership, enabling individuals to inspire and guide their teams, make critical decisions, communicate effectively, solve complex problems, and manage stakeholders.

By embracing empathy, authenticity, and effective problem-solving, individuals in these roles can bring about positive change and create a lasting impact in their respective fields. The power of servant leadership lies in its ability to transcend specific professions and inspire leaders to serve their teams, constituents, and customers selflessly. As we move closer to election season, regardless of political party, let’s apply an added layer of scrutiny, ask yourself the question, does this individual exhibit the traits of servant leadership?

Below are just a few of the many books on servant leadership. If you're interested in learning more about this leadership philosophy. Would love to hear which one is your favorite!

As always, Thanks for reading! For more content like this, please subscribe to my newsletter here!


~Steph Foley