Technologist Talks Servant Leadership and the Role It Can Play

Richard Bagdonas has been building technology and service companies for more than 30 years. Two have become publicly traded, while five have been acquired. Most recently, Bagdonas led the innovation team at, which was acquired by Press Ganey Associates in 2020.

As a technologist, he is a recognized expert in HL7, the protocol to transmit patient records to EMR systems, 835/837 EDI standards used in healthcare billing, and PCI Security Standards. Bagdonas authored four textbooks on telecommunications and data network design and engineering, as well as co-authoring a textbook on the convergence of voice, video, and data communications.

While experiencing great success as a professional, he has endured his share of health setbacks, suffering through stage IV cancer and covid pneumonia. It inspired him to author Fit for Any Battle, which details his successful workout regimen.

But his approach to leadership, specifically Servant Leadership, is what really caught our eye, and led to the following interview.

Question: What is Servant Leadership?

Answer:  Think of Servant Leadership as removing the control systems and processes typically in place within an autocratic leadership style by elevating the needs of our staff above our own. By caring about and serving the needs of others, we build a closer relationship that seeks to empower the individual. It focuses on leaning in with listening and empathy which requires us to elevate our own emotional intelligence, or EQ. I have found focusing on the needs of the individual benefits the organization more than simply focusing on the needs of the organization.

Consider this example: an employee is in the middle of a mental health crisis because a close family member has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Their mind is awash with fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the continued health and wellbeing of their loved one. This creates a situation where the employee is unable to effectively do their job and their negative headspace impacts others through their personal interactions. In a traditional leadership model, the employee may feel uncomfortable sharing this sensitive information with their manager as it may make them appear weak and instead, they simply struggle through their work, challenged to keep their head above water and in the end, they receive a poor rating on a future performance review. This can lead the organization to offboard them which has a waterfall effect of moving a team back to the forming and storming stages and there is the loss of institutional knowledge which has a difficult-to-calculate cost to the company.

In a servant leadership model, the employee’s manager takes care to connect with them on a personal level and asks them each week how things are going for them personally. They build a safe place to talk about things that are causing them problems and through these one-on-one interactions, they uncover the recent cancer diagnosis. The manager leans in with love and asks the employee to take some time to focus on their family member, reminding them that the manager and the team has their back. The employee takes some time to process their emotions and when they come back to work, they have a deeper and more intense personal relationship with their manager. Their work never suffers, and their team misses out on the negative interactions, as well as losing a team member. The company benefits from a stronger team and gets to keep the institutional knowledge contained in their work and relationships within the company. Meeting the needs of the employee benefits the company.

Q: What led you to Servant Leadership?

For over twelve years I have been married to an amazing woman named Tina Schweiger. She was instrumental in getting me to think about leadership in this manner as we started raising our children because we both wanted to lead them with love. A few years ago, Tina started, and is finishing up this semester, her Masters in Industrial Organizational Psychology. We have both made small adjustments to our leadership styles through her exploration into IO psychology. These concepts came up in her coursework and we spoke about them often. It was through trial and error with our children and working with employees that I found what worked and what didn’t resonate with employees.

Q: Who does Servant Leadership threaten?

The person who is most threatened by servant leadership is an autocrat. The person who has to have things done the way they want and expect. The micromanager. Micromanagers remove the autonomy from their staff and turn them into order takers with no sense of purpose. This takes the wind out of the employee’s sails, and they will eventually leave, complaining to anyone who will listen about the poor environment at their previous employer. But it wasn’t the employer that was the problem. It was the individual in a role that they are not well-suited for and by the transitive property, the employee blames the company as a whole. It is a lack of leadership at the highest level that elevates an autocratic micromanager. They may have been good at an individual contributor role, but once promoted to a manager, they fail to lead and focus solely on managing others. Management is only one part of being a leader.

 Q: Why is Servant Leadership a good fit specifically for the IT culture?

Servant Leadership works extremely well in a customer-focused environment. Its customers are typically other internal organizations, and those organizations are made up of people. Empowering the individual contributor to focus on the needs of others, in this case the customer, and you have a winning recipe for quality service delivery. I have used servant leadership to uncover and fix issues with IT staff. An example involved an individual in IT who had become contentious with a counterpart in another department. The IT employee’s previous manager had moved quickly to look at this as a personnel problem and used a performance improvement plan (PIP) to deal with the situation. PIPs should be considered as a last option because oftentimes a guided conversation can help the situation. The way this reached me was that the individual contributor in IT decided to leave and I was notified by their manager they had accepted a position at another company. I started asking questions and met with the employee and their manager to talk about why they were leaving. Through the discovery process I found that they had missed out on a promotion and merit increase because of the previous problems with the other department. Mind you, this employee had already accepted the position at the other company and was set to start there in a couple weeks.

I asked the employee if they would be willing to allow me to help and if we solved the issue, they would have to call the other company and tell them they were not starting in two weeks. The employee agreed and so we came up with a plan. I would bring together the members of the two departments who had gotten cross with each other. I explained my plan to the Vice President who oversaw the other department and asked them to join us while I guided the group through a set of conversations. During those meetings we uncovered the issue which was the pressures of the pandemic and a newly-implemented virtual-first environment that created communication challenges because people were working from their homes. We openly discussed the challenges each person faced as part of it and the most important parts of the conversations came when we all apologized to each other and came up with a set of agreements they would adhere to which would help clean up their working relationship. At the end of the conversations, I asked for the other department’s permission to submit a request for the promotion and merit increase for my employee. They agreed. The employee in IT received both and is very happy in his elevated role rather than working at the other company. We saved his relationships, his pride, his job, and for the company – his institutional knowledge gathered over half a decade. I received wonderful feedback from the Vice President of the other department and the Director of IT took me aside after we had completed the process and thanked me for including them in the meetings because they learned a new tool to use. It also strengthened my relationship with each person in the meetings because they saw firsthand how someone leading with love addressed the situation.

Q: What are three things a manager can do to embrace Servant Leadership?

First and foremost is to be comfortable getting to know your direct reports. Relationships have to be a two-way street. We have to open up and be vulnerable ourselves in order to encourage others to do the same. This created the safety net, cone of silence, or whatever else we want to refer to deep conversations without the fear of admonishment.

Secondly, we need to listen and empathize with what the person in front of us is saying. I like to refer to my interest in them using the following hierarchy: human, person, friend, colleague, employee. We have to think of them as humans who are going through life in the best way they know how. We need to think of them as a person who has relationships such as parents, children, friends, neighbors, loved ones. We have to consider them as a friend if we want to build a close relationship with them because people don’t talk about their personal life with someone, they don’t consider a friend. Additionally, we don’t have confidential conversations with people we don’t trust. We have to think of them as a colleague because our direct report one day might be the person who hires us in the future so if we consider ourselves above the other person, the dynamic conversations don’t happen. Finally, we have to think of them as an employee who needs coaching, mentoring, and guidance to help elevate their skills – both soft and technical/operational.

The third thing that someone needs to embrace is the ability to hold confidential information as truly confidential. It should not be shared with peers, spouses, or their team members. The only caveat to this is if they say it is ok to share it and with whom. I recently witnessed a situation where a senior leader was asked to have a confidential conversation with an employee who was struggling. The leader was unable to hold the information from the conversation in confidence and shared it with their peers. The end result was very poor because once they get the reputation for not being able to hold information in confidence, nobody will open up to them and the leader will not be able to overcome it. This leads to high attrition and the significant loss of institutional knowledge. It creates a revolving door of talent who come in, learn of the issue, and inevitably leave to find greener pastures.