The phrase servant leadership is popular in agile circles but not always well defined or clearly understood. Some think of it like a trendy corporate buzzword devoid of any real meaning, while others see it as a lower form of leading for people who don’t aspire to truly climb the ladder. The truth is that the idea is far older and far simpler than most people realize.
Historical Examples of Servant Leadership
While Robert Greenleaf certainly didn’t invent the concept of servant leadership, he is probably most closely associated with it in the modern era. After retiring from an almost four-decade career at AT&T, he began writing essays and books stating that a leader’s primary function is to serve others and ultimately started a nonprofit organization to continue advancing this idea.
Other names we tend to associate with servant leadership include great leaders throughout history: Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others who made a lasting impact on our society and culture, not by raising themselves up but by focusing on serving the community and world around them. Through these examples, we see that the idea of the leader as a servant is not a new concept, but rather prevalent in philosophies and religions throughout history.
Servant Leadership and Scrum
The Scrum Framework is built on several big concepts: lean thinking, empiricism (transparency, inspection, and adaptation), the frequent production of Done increments of work, and self-management, to name a few. At the core of self-management is the idea that a team can be trusted to internally decide who does what, when, and how. This only works well when their goals, boundaries, and accountabilities are clear. The term servant leadership has been used as one way to describe how a Scrum Master helps enable self-management on a Scrum Team.
The 2017 version of the Scrum Guide called the Scrum Master a servant leader, while the 2020 version refers to the Scrum Master as a “true leader who serves”. In either case, a Scrum Master is clearly not intended to be a self-aggrandizing authority figure who directs the teams’ tasks. Instead, a Scrum Master will find more success in looking at their leadership as a way to serve their Scrum, their Product Owner, and their organization.
Four Traits of a Servant Leader
While there’s no one definitive way to be a servant leader, there are several common traits observed in many leaders who serve.
If the core characteristic of a servant leader is being focused on the well-being of others, then humility is a topic that is almost definitional to servant leadership. We tend to think of humility as being lowly, self-deprecating, or downplaying strengths, but that would be false humility. Prolific author and scholar C. S. Lewis famously wrote that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less,” indicating that you don’t need to deny the reality about yourself to be humble, but rather shift your focus from yourself to others.
Servant leaders are often described as having empathy for the people they’re leading. Here we run into yet another word often used with wildly disparate meanings, with everything from being emotionally exhausted to being agreeable or “nice” wrapped up in the idea. Both of those are misunderstandings of the trait or state of empathy. In A Concept Analysis of Empathy, nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman observes that empathy is often defined by four attributes:
- Sharing another person’s perspective
- Understanding another person’s feelings
- Remaining non-judgmental
- Communicating the understanding
By leaning into these qualities, a leader can connect with a person they’re leading on an emotional level, in addition to (not merely instead of) the intellectual and rational connections we often associate with traditional leadership. This allows the leader to more effectively help their team achieve their goals.
When I think of self-awareness, I typically first think of its opposite — the utter lack of self-awareness perhaps best personified by goofy fictional office boss, Michael Scott. While he ends up being a lovable character who is motivated by his care for his employees, many of his antics, particularly in the early seasons of The Office were so entertaining (and awkward) because of his utter failure to realize the impact his actions were having on the people around him.
Self-aware servant leaders will take the time to think about how their actions impact the people and the organization in their context. When leaders are very skilled in this trait, they don’t even need to intentionally enter into this frame of mind, as it will become standard practice to evaluate their actions using this lens.
Motivated to Help Others
In his book The Motive, author Patrick Lencioni describes the difference between reward-centered leadership and responsibility-centered leadership. The former stems from a view of leadership as a reward for hard work and results in leaders who pick and choose what they want to do as a leader based on what they enjoy doing. The latter type of leadership stems from the view of leadership as a responsibility, and therefore results in leaders who do what needs to be done, even if it is challenging or unpleasant.
When a leader sees their position as a trophy for their accomplishments, a proverbial feather in their cap, or (dangerously) the primary source of their self-worth, the results are predictable: suboptimization, micro-management, and abdication of crucial responsibilities. These “leaders” are motivated by how they view themselves.
By contrast, a leader who makes their leadership about others and centers the people they’re leading will also have predictable results: developing others, goal-oriented actions, and healthy communication. This is what is most often described by the term servant leadership — the type of leadership that is others-focused. In fact, Lencioni argues that when this becomes the norm, the term “servant leadership” can be retired because it will be seen as the only valid kind of leadership.
When Servant Leadership Isn’t a Good Fit
While the argument here is that servant leadership is a better approach to leading people, growing a team/organization, and achieving goals, that doesn’t mean that servant leadership is the perfect fit for every situation. Servant leadership results in and optimizes for attributes such as empowerment, delegation, and decentralized authority. These are all helpful in a complex domain in which we need competing ideas, creative problem-solving, and novel approaches to desired outcomes.
However, in chaotic situations in which speed and decisiveness are crucial, perhaps even matters of life and death, there is a place for more of a command and control style of leadership. When the house is on fire, we don’t need a leader who will create bounded environments for creative thinking; we need the fire to be put out as quickly as possible. Here, servant leadership takes a backseat to decisive action.
This is analogous to how the Scrum framework leverages empiricism for creative solutions in the complex domain but isn’t a good fit for the clear/simple domain. Using Scrum to assemble Big Macs, IKEA tables, or other products with well-defined inputs, outputs, and pathways between them, Scrum is overkill. There are no creative problems to solve here; simply follow the recipe as efficiently as possible. While the counterexample domains differ (chaotic vs clear/simple), the takeaway is the same: use the right leadership style or framework for the right domain.
Wrapping up with the key points, servant leadership is:
- an others-oriented approach to leading people
- often acclaimed in the agile community, especially for Scrum Masters
- applies the traits of humility, empathy, self-awareness, and motivation to help others
- not always the best fit, particularly in urgent or emergency matters of dire consequences
- a way to grow a team and organization to be more adaptable and scalable in the long run
Perhaps the best conclusion to this discussion would be to come full circle and return to Robert Greenleaf, the man who spent much of his life promoting the idea of the leader as a servant and leave you with his definition of servant leadership:
“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.”Robert Greenleaf