Sunset over Lake Erie

A sunset is a gift with no strings!

While there are many leadership types and models, one commonality is that the really great leaders have the ability to give and take feedback. The free flow of feedback is a form of reciprocity in which the gift is honest and well-meaning knowledge, advice, or guidance. Servant leadership requires this type of reciprocity. The servant leader works to empower and serve the people he or she leads while the free flow of feedback generates engagement and brings teams and organizations together. Generating reciprocity is an important skill that needs to be carefully cultivated by a leader. Servant leaders at the team level often use two basic tools to generate reciprocity: gift giving and content marketing. (more…)

Picture of standard poodle

Leadership Is Not All Puppies!

Servant leadership is a powerful tool to unlock the ability of teams or groups to deliver value. As we have found, servant leadership unlocks several of the principles that underlie the Agile Manifesto.  Despite the linkage to Agile, applying servant leadership is not all puppies and kittens. There is no one perfect style of management or leadership, and servant leadership is only one of those styles. Different types of people and different contexts mean that servant leadership does not fit every organization’s need.  There are several criticisms of servant leadership that can illuminate who shouldn’t use servant management and in which contexts to avoid the style.  Below are some common criticisms of the style, along with my comments on those critiques: (more…)


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.

Servant leaders work through collaboration.

Servant leaders work through collaboration.

I am often asked why servant leadership is important (this is usually right after someone asks what servant leadership is). A servant leader facilitates collaboration not only by creating a learning environment, but also by helping the team to establish a vision and goals.  Servant leadership can be tied directly to the four values of Agile. (more…)

A leader or a hermit?

A leader or a hermit?

There is no single precise definition of leadership, despite the fact that leadership is considered to be one of the most important attributes that any team, group or organization must have.  Myriad books, models and frameworks attempt to define it and tell you how to cultivate it. Theories of leadership tend to break into three camps: innate-attribute based, process and position based, and hybrid.

The innate attribute camp is breaks down further into either great man (i.e. leaders are born) or trait (i.e. specific traits lead to leadership) theories. In the innate attribute camp, even when traits can be developed, they are based on fundamentals that you either have or don’t have. In most cases these theories are somewhat archaic, for example the Great Man Theory was first popularized in the 1800s. These types of theories tend to resurface because they are easily discussed and consumed.

Process-based theories focus on honing behaviors and skills.   These theories tend to reflect that in different situations, leaders use different approaches.  The approaches are learned and improved, rather than representing intrinsic traits. Consider Winston Churchill – he was a great wartime leader, but as less successful during peacetime. Churchill was most powerful when motivating under stress with a particular pinch of oratory.  As situations changed Churchill continued to use the same actions and behaviors, which did not translate to success in a different circumstance.  Process-based theories predict that situations dictate different leadership behaviors.

Hybrid theories combine the best of both worlds.  An example of a hybrid model is the 1994 Transformational Theory described by Bass and Avolio. In this theory, leaders apply their attributes to specific situations to inspire individuals, develop trust and personal growth.  The concept of servant leadership, another hybrid leadership style, reflects a synthesis of a leader’s attributes and situational leadership requirements.

Picking a definition of leadership is important to ground how you will guide and coach teams. When coaching teams the model of leadership that I use is that a leader provides guidance, creates structure, sanctions methods of work and defines levels of performance to attain a goal. How he or she does that, or whether the mantle of leadership is situational depends on the organization and the team itself.  Both the traits of the leader and situation become important to understand who will be able to lead and when a leader should cede the mantle to another.  Regardless of the theory, leadership is about influencing a group of people to achieve a goal. Even if the leadership pundits can’t agree upon a precise definition, they will agree that a leader must have followers that will pursue the goal or visions the leader provides. In the end, a leader without followers is a hermit.

Our guide acted as a servant leader.

Our guide acted as a servant leader.

The servant leader works to empower and serve the people he or she leads. Empowerment on an Agile team is removing impediments and coaching the team so it performs to its capability using Agile practices. If you are leveraging Scrum, this is the role described as a Scrum Master. In xP this is the role of a coach. Skip Prichard observes that servant leadership is a blend and balance between leader and servant. You don’t lose leadership qualities when becoming a servant leader. Different writers describe the seven pillars of servant leadership, the nine qualities of the servant leader or the 12 key practices of a servant leader. All of these lists can be consolidated into four attributes, which are that a servant leader fosters learning, facilitates collaboration, generates trust and acts as the team’s advocate.

A servant leader fosters an atmosphere in which a team continuously learns. Teams learn new skills, gain deeper understanding of the business, of the technology, of the capability of the team and how to deliver greater value. The servant leader helps to create an environment that supports the respectful and safe expression of ideas. They lead by example through coaching and teaching.

A servant leader facilitates collaboration, not only by creating a learning environment, but also by helping the team to establish a vision and goals which the team can use as a guide. The servant leader provides the tools and techniques needed for the team to self-organize and to make decisions. Collaborating is the action of working with someone (or someones) to generate an outcome. The servant, when needed, coaches and mentors team members to work together to achieve the goals they have committed to meeting.

A servant leader builds trust through trusting. When leaders exhibit trust of team members, team members show significantly higher levels of trust[1].  Trust is an important ingredient for working in teams because it underpins effective cooperative[2] behaviors. Trust creates an environment that makes communication flow more easily and allows the team self-organize rather than to be organized.

In old western movies, the settlers would circle the wagons when threatened. Agile teams can’t circle the wagons, rather they need someone must advocate for them. The servant leader is the voice of the team. Helping to remove impediments and to help deflect other demands that could deflect the team from living up to their capability.

Teams are a core component of work today. Agile teams are more efficient when they are empowered. Servant leaders help the team learn and collaborate. Servant leaders deliver and foster trust which makes the team more effective. And without someone to be the team’s voice and advocate, teams will be buffeted by the capricious demands of the organization making it difficult to deliver consistent value.


[1] Sen Sendjaya, Andre Pekerti, (2010) “Servant leadership as antecedent of trust in organizations”, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 31 Iss: 7, pp.643 – 663