What Is Agile Servant Leadership?

by | Jan 9, 2016 | 0 comments

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If you spend even a short amount of time around agile, especially Scrum, you’ll probably hear people saying that what is required of leaders in these contexts is servant leadership. That’s fine, all well and good in fact, but too often that’s as far as the conversation goes. So what is servant leadership, where does it come from, what does it entail, and is it actually the right kind of leadership for agile approaches?

Well, to understand some of this, let’s take a brief look at the history of leadership thinking, to put this idea of servant leadership in context. At the start of the 19th century, leadership thinking was all about power, domination and control, in as much as leaders were powerful people who dominated and controlled others. Things got a bit more sophisticated by the 1930’s, with leadership being about certain traits people had, such as personality characteristics and even gender and height. Leadership was seen as being about influence as well as power, and by the 1940’s, people had started seeing it more in the context of the group that was being led too. This idea of leaders in groups carried on into the 1950’s, being joined by the idea of leaders developing shared goals with the group, and the degree to which leaders made the group effective. By the 1970’s people were looking at leadership from the whole organisation level, and leadership in the context in which the organisation was operating, such as competition or conflict.

It’s no surprise then that servant leadership emerged as a concept in the 1970s, given servant leadership is all about how servant leaders interact with those around them and support the wider organisation. But what actually is it?

Well, first of all, in more traditional ways of thinking about leadership, servant leadership makes no sense. Leaders are in charge, they have power and authority whilst sitting higher in the hierarchy. Why should leaders serve those below them? Wouldn’t serving someone make them the leader, and the leader the follower?

This for me is one of the really important aspects of servant leadership. Servant leaders put others first, they want to help and develop them in order to help them achieve the best results for the organisation, so they tend not to act with hierarchical power and control. This is great for agility, as it helps with collaboration. Another great aspect of servant leadership for agility is the idea that servant leaders help others to do great work. This fits really well with roles such as the Scrum Master in the Scrum framework, who helps clear out of the way blockers identified by the team.

There are though a few elements of servant leadership that are much less often mentioned in the world of agile. The idea of servant leadership was first devised by a chap called Robert Greenleaf in an essay called ‘The Servant As Leader’ published in 1970. You can read a lot more about him and his work here. One of the things Greenleaf talked about was the idea of ethics in servant leadership, that servant leaders are ethical and aim to make those they serve

healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous (and) more likely themselves to become servants”.

In addition, they should aim to ensure that their leadership helps the least privileged in society become better off, or at least not any worse off. I have to say, I don’t necessarily see this commitment to ethics written across the agile industry right now. Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t lots of agile practitioners behaving ethically right now and aiming to make society a better place. In fact, I suspect there are more people like that in agile right now than in many other fields. However, how often do you see commitment to high ethical standards as an essential requirement in the person specifications for Scrum Masters and agile coaches?

Another slight problem with servant leadership is the fact that it has so many other characteristics and requirements servant leaders need to follow as well. Seriously, across all the different servant leadership thinkers and writers, there are loads, some even incorporating ideas such as meaningful interpersonal love in the workplace and transcendental spirituality. Getting too bogged down in some of these probably isn’t worthwhile at this stage, although I’d like to come back to some of these ideas around agile in the future. However, it’s worth looking at some of the characteristics of servant leaders that a chap called Larry Spears collated in 2002 from the original writings of Robert Greenleaf.

The first is listening, in the sense of servant leaders listening to people as much as speaking to them, as Spears puts it:

The servant leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps to clarify that will

An idea that shouldn’t be alien to anyone who’s seen a half decent Scrum Master in action at any point.

The second is empathy, really seeing the world from someone else’s point of view. This means separating people’s actions that you disagree with from your opinion of them as people. As Spears puts it:

One assumes the good intentions of co-workers and colleagues”.

This for me is the most important part of all of this. It’s easy to do for a short time, but very difficult to keep up in the long-term, once the stresses and strains of working life take their toll, and especially if you and another person just keep on disagreeing about the best courses of action.

Number four is awareness, the ability for the servant leader to see their actions in their wider context, being fully aware and appreciative of this context. This if a hugely complex issue, as complex and as varied as different contexts can be. On top of this, it’s also easy to lose sight of these things, again when the stresses, strains and interpersonal politics of the workplace start to take their toll. Servant leaders are also seen as using persuasion rather than coercion. They persuade people to do things there way, and listen to feedback whilst doing so, rather than giving orders and forcing people to do as they say.

There is also a huge interpersonal element to servant leadership. Servant leaders are meant to help others grow both personally and professionally. So their ‘development plan’ isn’t something you give them to follow in order to learn new skills that benefit the business, or even that help them get recognised and promoted within the business. It’s something they themselves shape in order to develop them as fully rounded people, even giving them skills that might one day see them leave the business. More than this, servant leaders actively involve others in decision making, and if they have to make redundancies, they help those they make redundant to find new jobs. On top of all this, servant leaders look build a sense of community amongst those they work with, helping them feel safe and connected with others, whilst still being allowed to express their individuality.

I’ll stop there for now on the different aspects of servant leadership, as it’s easy to get lost in them given the number of different ones that have been suggested by numerous different authors since Greenleaf’s original essay. Suffice to say if you read into it enough, you can start reading about truly loving those you work with and transcendental spirituality. Now I actually have a theory about agile and religion, but that’s a topic for another blog post. Above all else though, servant leadership is a very human thing, and so you have to question how useful it would be to start trying to define, delineate and precisely prescribe what it is and is not. It is as much more an art than a science.

This leads us on to thinking about how people get to become servant leaders. Perhaps in keeping with the human nature of servant leadership, Greenleaf suggests that servant leadership begins in someone as a:

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“.

I’ve got to say, as someone who’s been a servant leader for a number of years now, I do and I don’t agree with this. On the one hand, servant leadership is definitely a feeling, a compulsion, a thing you need to do for others even if it risks costing you personal profile, power, prestige and even promotion. However, I’m not sure I’ve always felt like a servant leader, and I certainly had a desire to acquire material possessions over the years. Servant leadership is much more a continuum, with no trace of it whatsoever at one end, and at the other end, living a life of poverty wholly dedicated to helping others. Everyone will probably be somewhere, and the most important thing is to think where you might be on that scale, and decide where on it you want to get to.

This isn’t the only problem with the idea of servant leadership though. For something that sounds all peace, love and harmony, it actually has a fair few problems that any servant leaders should be aware of. First, if servant leaders listen first and help groups decide their will collectively, then they can look pretty odd in meetings. I’ve servant led in meetings before now where people have criticised me afterwards for hardly doing anything. From their perspective, I just sat there and said practically nothing. From mine, I was working really hard, concentrating on what every one was saying, thinking it through, and checking that the group was working well together to decide what to do. It just so happened that in that particular instance the group happened to be really good at working collaboratively, and needed little input from me as servant leader in order to do so.

Servant leaders also need to give up influence and control, and empower others instead. This is all well and good, but it can lead to what I call the Weimar Germany problem. Following the First World War, Germany was set up as the Weimar Republic, a republic with an excellent democratic structure that enacted many progressive social reforms to make life better for all. It was in many ways a government that served its people. In the end though, whether due to its circumstances or its structure, the Republic was swept away by Hitler and transformed into a dictatorship led by him, largely put in place using the democratic processes the Republic had been set up to contain. A leader that does nothing to serve others, and puts others first, is often easy for the less altruistic to remove and replace. To take another example. Jesus was a servant leader, dedicating his life to helping and serving others, and he got crucified for his trouble.

Now you could put in place a system that recognised and countered this risk, making sure the more a leader served others, the more protection they are given from those who might want to take their place. But if a servant leader puts others first at all times, how are you meant to spot the good ones? You could look for the ones you notice the least, but that might end up including the worst servant leaders, the ones who do nothing for their team or anyone else, trying not to draw attention to themselves and this fact in the process.

One other thing we have to recognise is that not everyone would necessarily like working for a servant leader anyway. I’ve seen this myself first hand in an agile team I was leading. We were only a team for a short amount of time, so I didn’t go into much effort to explain agile and Scrum to the entire team, but I followed the standard Scrum model, and we produced far more output at far higher quality than had ever been produced in those circumstances before. However, one person in the team really couldn’t get on with this approach. In fact, it’s probably fair to say they really hated it. They’d shout and argue, and then apologise for ‘undermining me as team leader’, to which I’d reply that you can’t undermine someone who isn’t on top. Fair to say this only made things worse. In a world where we’re brought up to believe managers are there tell us what to do, finding your manager wants to hear what you think you should do, then support you to do it, can be really unsettling.

This also leads on to another point about servant leadership. I think in all probability that if we’d worked together long enough, me and this person wouldn’t have had this problem. However, we were only working together for a short time, so we never got the chance to get over this hump. Perhaps being such a human thing, servant leadership is only really successful where relationships are given plenty of time and stability in which to emerge and strengthen. Now agile practitioners often recommend reducing team churn and employee turnover to prevent problems like this, but if you look at the current job market, very often agile roles are being offered as short term contracts. Can we really expect to feel the full benefits of an agile approach without committing to long term team stability?

So there we are then, a brief overview of servant leadership and how it works in an agile context. There’s loads more to this issue obviously, and I’ll come back to it in future blogs, but I hope that’s been of some use in moving your knowledge beyond a simple statement that ‘agile requires servant leadership’. Now it’s over to you though. If I’m a servant leader, then I’m here to listen to others. So I’d love to hear what your experiences are of servant leadership, what’s worked for you, what hasn’t worked, and whether you even think it’s a good idea or not.

Leave a comment below, or feel free to email me at gez AT bunnypicnic.co.uk. It’d be lovely to hear from you.

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About The Author

Gez Smith is an agile communications coach, trainer, author and speaker, and is also the author of ‘Agile Marketing: The Incomplete Guide‘.