Servant leadership is the act of leading through service to others. Okay, so how does that differ from traditional leadership? Traditional leadership emphasizes accumulating power and then using that power to get things done.
The label was coined by Robert Greenleaf in an essay in 1970:
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.
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
Servant leadership can be applied in any endeavour and with any approach to organizing teams. Since our focus is Scrum and Agile, I will assume the servant leader is helping a team become more effective in the Scrum framework.
Greenleaf’s quote packs in a lot. Practically, how does a servant leader do their job? What characteristics do they display?
- Active listener
- Supportive and empathetic
- Acts without power (no micro-managing, don’t assign work items to people)
- Helps the team understand the purpose of their work (hint: make sure the team has a shared vision)
- Helps the team understand their process
- Models the behaviours they expect from others
- Helps the organization understand the needs of the team
- Helps the Product Owner ensure both the team and stakeholders have a good understanding of their current thinking
- Mentors team members
- Grows team members’ autonomy
- Speaks last – when there are ideas to be shared, gives space for other team members to speak first
For what it’s worth, recent changes to the Scrum Guide mean that it no longer directly references “servant leadership”. Instead, it says “Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.” It then cites a dozen ways the ScrumMaster serves the Team, Product Owner and Organization. So it avoids saying servant leadership and nonetheless implies it.
Scrum Anti-Patterns: Micromanagement
How Escape Rooms Teach About Teams
- How to Lead Servant Leaders
- Origins of Servant Leadership
- Scrum Master Servant Leadership: The 1 Rule
- Servant Leader or A True Leader in Scrum
- Servant leadership: why being a servant leader is worth the work
- What is leadership: A definition and way forward
Mark Levison has been helping Scrum teams and organizations with Agile, Scrum and Kanban style approaches since 2001. From certified scrum master training to custom Agile courses, he has helped well over 8,000 individuals, earning him respect and top rated reviews as one of the pioneers within the industry, as well as a raft of certifications from the ScrumAlliance. Mark has been a speaker at various Agile Conferences for more than 20 years, and is a published Scrum author with eBooks as well as articles on InfoQ.com, ScrumAlliance.org an AgileAlliance.org.
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