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Embracing Servant Leadership

The way we interact with people is often shaped by our past interactions and as such, we learn as we move forward.  In a time where many are asked to step forward to lead, there are many challenges that arise. One has to ask themselves, “how” will they lead. They have to wonder what their vision of leadership looks like. As all of these thoughts and ideas come together, they start to form their own type of leadership style. 

There are many different ways to lead. At one end of the spectrum, a leader may rule with an iron fist, such as an authoritarian. However, the opposite extreme could be where a leader allows their team to make their own decisions and may only provide input when asked. There are also several different styles that fit between these two extremities but I want to focus on “Servant Leadership”.

What Is It?

You may be asking, “What does it mean to be a Servant Leader?”.  How can one both lead and serve at the same time?  Believe it or not, the two words fit together quite nicely. The idea in itself has been around for quite a long time, but the phrase was officially coined in an essay by Robert K. Greenleaf back in 1970. In the essay, “The Servant as Leader”, he stated:

“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, 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. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” 1

In terms of business, the leader serves the needs of the employees in order to empower them to get their job done as efficiently as possible. For someone who has never heard of this before, it may be challenging if their style of leadership lends itself to leading with power first. This is not to say that one cannot change, but rather it may require one to re-frame their way of thinking.

How Can I Use It?

With a vast majority of businesses moving towards Agile, this is the perfect place to see Servant Leadership in action. Specifically, this applies to Scrum teams. This will not be an in-depth explanation of Scrum, but below explains the three major roles on a team. If you are not familiar with Scrum, I would encourage you to read the eBook, “What Is SCRUM”, at Scrum.org.

The Product Owner – “The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the Development Team … The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog.” 2

The Development Team – “The Development Team consists of professionals who do the work of delivering a potentially releasable Increment of ‘Done’ product at the end of each Sprint. Only members of the Development Team create the Increment. Development Teams are structured and empowered by the organization to organize and manage their own work.” 2

The Scrum Master - “The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules. The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.” 2

The magic starts to happen when we look at the role of the Development Team. The team is typically self-organizing and they manage their work. This can happen because of the role of the Scrum Master. It is this role that embodies the Servant Leader attitude.  A Scrum Master is not a manager in the sense that we think, but rather a server and a coach. They ensure the team is maximizing all of its potential and providing the desired result for the Product Owner.

What If I Cannot Use Scrum?

The reality is that many companies have processes and structures in place which do not lend them to switching to Agile.  Agile can help in many ways, but it is by no means a silver bullet for every situation. Leadership has to evaluate their use-case for each situation, but the beautiful thing is that Servant Leadership is not confined to one style of team structure!  It can be used anywhere and by any leader. It is the qualities of a servant leader which can be adapted.

Conclusion

The goal of this style of leadership is to serve the needs of your team by giving them what they need to succeed. You as a leader can do several things:

  1. Coach your team members to help them grow. Remember, coaching is not all about telling people what or how to do things, but rather helping them move forward with a new frame of thought.
  2. Don’t let “Red-tape” tie the hands of your team. Productivity suffers when team members cannot gain access to the tools they need to effectively do their job.
  3. Help shield your team from outside influences, so that they can focus on providing a great service for your company.  

Leading is not always easy and sometimes there are difficult parts to the job, but one of the greatest things you can do is make life easy for those who follow your lead.




1. “What is Servant Leadership?” - Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2016
2. “The Scrum Guide” – SCRUM GUIDES. Retrieved May 18, 2016

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About The Author

Senior Project Manager
Antoine is a Senior Project Manager in the Cardinal Raleigh/Durham Project Services practice.  He leverages his 15 years of application development experience along with being a Certified Scrum Master to bring a unique perspective when leading his project teams through delivery.