Servant leadership is a powerful tool to unlock the ability of teams or groups to deliver value. Many of the links between servant leadership and Agile are because servant leadership enables several of the principles in the Agile Manifesto. The concept of servant leadership can be traced back to Ancient China, but it was popularized in the 1970’s by Robert Greenleaf in his essay “The Servant as Leader“.  It is simple in its basic premise, but more complex and nuanced in practice. When considering the servant as a leader, Greenfield suggested that base attribute of the person, which can not be taken away, is that of a servant (providing service to others). The leadership attribute develops as an addition to the servant role.  While the servant attribute is forever, the leader can be transitory. The term servant is used in more of a religious tone (small r variety), in which the servant seeks to make those around her or him better, rather than the servant portrayed in Downton Abbey. The high-level distinction is important and often glossed over when applied in organizations.  Being a servant leader is more difficult than following the simple definition of empowering and serving the people he or she leads.

A leader is the representative of a goal; a servant leader draws followers to the goal and then helps them to improve. Often servant leadership is used as another name for a project manager or team lead for teams that are a collection of individuals that are not pursuing a larger vision. A few years ago, I managed several shifts in a beer garden at a local festival.  Even though I oversaw the work and made sure everyone was taken care of during their stint in the garden, I did not impart or rally the people under my wing to the overall goal of the festival.  I was not acting as a servant leader. Part of the role of a servant leader is to understand and own at least their part of the big picture and act as a gravity well to draw people to that goal. 

The servant leader focuses on the growth and well-being of the people that are part of the community (a team in an Agile context). Focusing on the individuals improves the team’s ability to pursue the goal. Measuring the impact of improving the growth and well-being of the team and organization includes affirmatively answering some or all of the following questions:  

  • Do those served by the servant leader become wiser?
  • Do they broaden and deepen their skill set?
  • Are they better positioned to fulfill their needs and wishes?  

Servant leadership is about the people being served.  In a corporate setting, empowering people to grow also means meeting the goals and needs of the organization. The balance is not easy.    

Servant leaders share power rather than accumulate power to themselves. On reflection, this attribute of a servant leader might be the most difficult to practice for those whose real goal is to climb the organizational hierarchy. For a servant leader, climbing the ladder might be an outcome; however, that pursuit must be subjugated to the growth and well-being of the individuals in their community/team.

Servant leadership is harder than other forms of leadership because it requires that the leader focuses their efforts on serving their team or organization. Many leaders have a view of leadership that is far more actively focused on their own growth and well-being by pursuing their chosen goal at all costs. In reality, most managers managers fall somewhere on a continuum that ranges from pure servant leadership to megalomaniac micro-managers. Where they operate on the continuum is a reflection of who they are, how they were educated and the organization they work within.

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