Over the years, the concept of leadership has evolved, generating distinct leadership styles. Each has its own way of viewing the leader role, the leader’s relationship with their workers below, the communication style between them, and the purpose of the leader within the organization.
In this article, we will explore servant leadership, a style closely connected with Agile methodologies. We will analyze the connection between servant leadership and Agile. In doing so, you’ll learn what it means to serve as a leader and the benefits it can bring to an organization and everyone involved.
What is Servant Leadership?
While this might sound like a modern concept, the idea of servant leadership has existed for decades. The term was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in his essay “The Servant as Leader,” in 1970.
According to Greenleaf, servant leadership begins with the natural feeling of wanting to serve first. Therefore, a servant leader has to conduct their workers in a selfless way, putting other people’s needs and the organization’s needs before themselves.
More than commanding and serving as an authority, the servant leader constantly looks for ways to serve those below. Servant leaders contribute to their workers’ growth and development, inducing creativity and fostering a sense of purpose. As a result, employees feel more aligned with the overall purpose and goals of the company.
Servant Leadership in Action
Servant leadership has been adopted by some of the world’s best-performing companies. Corporations such as Google, SAS, Starbucks, FedEx, and Marriott International have been cultivating this leadership style with clear results. Not only do servant leadership and traditional leadership operate differently, but they also generate significantly distinct outcomes.
Putting an emphasis on employees makes them feel more valued, appreciated, and satisfied, Google reached unprecedented levels of employee satisfaction with a metric increase as high as 37%. Furthermore, Google concluded that happy employees are 12% more productive than unhappy ones.
“Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” — Sir Richard Branson
Employee satisfaction and consequently boosted company performance are but one of the many benefits of servant leadership. Other upsides include:
- More collaborative and tighter teams
- Moral boost in the teams
- Sense of belonging felt by everyone involved
- Companies openly share a vision, allowing employees to adhere to it
- A more positive work environment
- Improved agility in organizational terms
- Collaborative decision-making
As with any other leadership style, servant leadership falls short in some aspects. These are mostly related to time. Using a collaborative decision-making process, decisions can take longer to be made which slows down some processes. Then, if the company or project started with a different leadership style, it will take time and adjustment to get the servant leadership style running smoothly.
Still, judging by the numbers, it pays off to shift towards this direction. Employees who feel their voice matters are 4.6 times more likely to perform better at their job. 96% of employees identify empathy as essential for employee retention. And 89% of employees at companies that support well-being programs tend to recommend their company as a good place to work.
The benefits are clear. But once you decide to adopt servant leadership in your organization, how exactly does that look?
What Does Servant Leadership Look Like in Practical Terms?
Servant leaders work at two levels. On one hand, they need to provide direction from the top-down. On the other hand, they need to make sure they empower people from the bottom-up.
Providing direction from the top-down requires tasks such as defining the strategic vision for the company and communicating that down to the team, along with a clear direction based on company values.
Empowerment from the bottom-up involves building team confidence, sharing decision-making processes, and instigating a collaborative environment that allows everyone to feel safe to take risks and be creative. In one sentence, it’s about building trust—lead the team to trust the leader and build reasons for the leader to trust the team.
As Greenleaf believed, this is more of a lifestyle than a technique to be implemented in one go. However, there are some characteristics that servant leaders can work on to excel in their role:
- Develop excellent listening skills to be able to understand your team
- Practice empathy to create a meaningful connection with team members
- Practice awareness to notice even when team members are not voicing their concerns
- Be able to define and communicate a vision to bring your team together
- Practice stewardship to take responsibility for your team
In order to put servant leadership in action, here are some best practices that leaders should follow.
- A servant leader should start the journey with a genuine desire to serve the staff, which will benefit the organization as a whole.
- Communication between leaders and teams should be open, honest, and frequent. This begins during onboarding with leaders asking for observations and opinions about the whole process. But it shouldn’t end there. Throughout the year, leaders should be regularly asking employees these questions to give them an opportunity to express themselves.
- The servant leader should leverage the employee’s strengths. People often perform better in tasks they are passionate about, so it’s important to identify these early on and assign them appropriately as often as possible.
- At times, the servant leader should delegate power, ideally when an employee is more comfortable with a certain topic. This way, they can take ownership of some projects and build a sense of empowerment.
Finding your style as a servant leader can take a while in a trial and error process. While practicing the ideas mentioned above, it’s important to keep in mind that a servant leader is still a leader. The early days in this process will be about finding the sweet spot between leading and serving, especially for people who are new in the position.
How Servant Leadership Serves Agile Organizations— The Case of Scrum
The characteristics of servant leadership are fully aligned with the Agile Manifesto. According to this manifest, Agile methodologies value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and “customer collaboration over contract negotiation.” This is something that servant leadership puts into practice.
The Agile Manifesto is based on principles that also align with servant leadership, namely “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done”, and “Business people & developers must work together daily throughout the project”.
One of the most widely used Agile methodologies is Scrum. Naturally, the servant leadership style is completely in line with this methodology. Scrum is based on a set of values: courage, openness, respect, focus, and commitment — all of which are critical for an accomplished servant leadership practice.
The Scrum Guide goes as far as identifying the role of the Scrum Master precisely as a servant leader, stating that “Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.”
A Scrum Master is not defined as a manager. They are a leader that should lead by inspiring and serving people, not by forcing authority. The team will always choose to respect a good Scrum Master, giving them the power to drive change in an organization without imposing it on others.
The Scrum Guide states that Scrum Masters can achieve this by
- Coaching the team members in self-management and cross-functionality
- Helping the Scrum Team focus on creating high-value Increments that meet the Definition of Done
- Causing the removal of impediments to the Scrum Team’s progress
- Ensuring that all Scrum events take place and are positive, productive, and kept within the timebox.
You don’t need to be a manager in your job title to adopt servant leadership. Chances are that there is someone below you in the organization you belong to. If you lead people in any way, even if partially, or with small tasks, you can put this philosophy into practice.
As Greenleaf said, this is more of a lifestyle, and that means you can adhere to it in your daily interactions. Practice values that align with servant leadership. This means caring for others, valuing empathy, choosing ethics over profit, empowering people, and serving with humility.
You will start a snowball effect that will benefit everyone and ultimately serve the organization. Most importantly, you will contribute to the happiness, success, and well-being of the people you work with. In all, there is no greater good you could do and no better payment you could get.
Co-founder of Buildingbettersoftware and Agile Leadership Coach
Søren Pedersen is a strategic leadership consultant and international speaker. With more than fifteen years of software development experience at LEGO, Bang & Olufsen, and Systematic, Pedersen knows how to help clients meet their digital transformation goals by obtaining organizational efficiency, alignment, and quality assurance across organizational hierarchies and value chains. Using Agile methodologies, he specializes in value stream conversion, leadership coaching, and transformation project analysis and execution. He’s spoken at DevOps London, is a contributor for The DevOps Institute, and is a Certified Scrum Master and Product Owner.
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