On Servant Leadership

When an organization adopts agile as their method of working, it is said that they are going through an “Agile Transformation”. As if change isn’t difficult on it’s own, the organization must “transform” to embrace agile and this radically new way of working.

Agile Trainers and Coaches refer to a new form of leadership that is necessary for agile to flourish in the new organiztion. They call this “Servant Leadership”. Servant Leadership, simply put, is a mindset where the leader of the organization serves those he or she leads, all in purpose of a greater vision for the organization. This is often described as inverting the organizational structure by placing the leader at the bottom and the individual contributors at the top.

A recent book, “Servant Leadership in Action”, edited by Ken Blanchard & Renee Broadwell, contains dozens of essays on Servant Leadership, including Ken Blanchard, Brene Brown, Stepen Covey, John Maxwell, Simon Sinek, and many others. This book, with it’s dozens of authors, contains just as many different view points on Servant Leadership.

While Servant Leadership is the classic leadership style that Agile coaches will teach, there are other, similar, ancillary leadership styles that are close-enough to Servant Leadership to be considered: Host leadership and Intent-based Leadership.

Host leadership comes from the book Host, which describes leadership as a host of a dinner party. Just as a host at a dinner party ensures that the guests are fed, mingling, and having a good time, a leader makes certain that team members are motivated, collaborating, and delivering value. The metaphor of a dinner party host is simple to explain and easy to grasp.

Intent-based Leadership, on the other hand, comes from Captain David Marguet and his book Turn the Ship Around. In the book, Captain Marguet describes how he led the USS Sante Fe, at times out of necessity. In this leadership style, it is the leaders job to communicate the vision of the mission at hand, and those following to determine how to accomplish the goal. This is often done by informing the leader that “I intend to…”, with the leader then asking questions to ensure every angle has been considered.

But with so many different resources and different views on Servant Leadership, all agilists must be great at Servant Leadership, right?

Unfortunately, where I see agilists and agile organizations fail the most is in their adoption of Servant Leadership. There’s so many different ways to get it wrong, yet only a few ways to get it right. But more critically, Servant Leadership is a mental shift, one that takes place over months or years. Growing up, we had plenty of experiences being lead by command and control leaders: our parents, our teachers, our little league coach, our scout master, and later in life, our boss and managers. We’ve unfortunately have few examples in our life of Servant Leaders from which to draw inspiration from and model in our lives. Perhaps you had a spiritual leader, or a truly inspiring, serving school teacher to emulate. But all too often, these guides are drowned out in our heads by ALL of the other examples of leadership we’ve experienced.

Ultimately, a shift to Servant Leadership doesn’t easily occur by reading books. It needs 2 things to prosper. First, you have to already have strong Servant Leaders who can coach and mentor those who struggle with this new reality. Because Servant Leadership is best grasped by being experienced, not by being read in a book. And with a weekly guide, small strides can be made in the organization lifting all leaders to be servants.

Second, and most importantly, the organization must value and reward servant leaders. If leaders recognize and/or reward leaders for demonstrating behaviors counter to servant leadership, such as committing dates on behalf of a team, pushing teams by saying “just go faster”, or by micromanaging team members, the organization will get more leaders like this. And when an organization has more leaders like this than servant leaders, you can be sure that their agile transformation will struggle and may ultimately fail.