Exploring servant leadership

Oct 13, 2011  ·  Mike Lowery

A few weeks ago I was sitting next to a log fire, sharing a glass of wine with a few like minded individuals chatting about all things Agile, one of the things we discussed was a time when one of the party was a Scrum Master and that they had a team admin who used to collect all the story data and do the typing up for each sprint. My immediate reaction was that of outrage, "how as a servant leader could you, farm off 'menial' tasks to someone else, that's an integral part of the role".

It got me thinking, am I the odd one out here?

Most of the Agile literature I have read over the years mentions servant leadership, but never really goes in to too much detail. A quick hike to the lazy man's oracle, (Wikipedia) and as the saying goes "the more you know, the less you know you know". To help me learn and understand servant leadership a little more, I decided to dissect the Wikipedia commentary and see what emerged for me.

"Robert K. Greenleaf never specifically defined servant leadership but, based on the writings of Greenleaf and others, it can still be defined as a management philosophy which implies a comprehensive view of the quality of people, work and community spirit."

I read that sentence again and again it felt like I was reading an almost perfect synopsis for the Agile manifesto. Everything I try to do as a Scrum master is based on these principles and they provide a first principles approach for any questions I ever have.

"...implies a comprehensive view of the quality of people, work and community spirit"


  • Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools


  • Working software over comprehensive documentation

  • Responding to change over following a plan

Community Spirit

  • Customer Collaboration over contract negotiation - I see this as both inter and extra team, inter team means not sticking to your job titles and doing whatever is needed

  • Plus a good helping of Individuals and Interactions.

I think that for me and the vast majority of Agile practitioners is the ingrained belief that these principles actually do make a difference. They really are there to help a team do well, and as a Scrum Master you really do need to have this "comprehensive view" and have the personal energy to want to foster a community spirit within your team.

I think the following quote should be on every Scrum Master's job description, for me it's the best summation of the role (aside from the specific scrum knowlegde bit) that I have seen. "A servant leader looks to the needs of the people and asks himself how he can help them to solve problems and promote personal development. He places his main focus on people, because only content and motivated people are able to reach their targets and to fulfill the set expectations."

Reflecting on this you need to add a good pinch of systems thinking here too, focus on the people absolutely yes, but understand how the system they work within affects them and how you can change the system to make the team more "content and motivated".

I next looked at the 10 characteristics created (by Larry C. Spears) around the development of a servant leader. If you want to see his definition see the full wikipedia page, the characteristics are his, the interpretations however are mine.

  • Listening: Listening is not just about when people are talking, but also about when they are not. It's also about listening to what the system is telling you.
    • Your active listening should be at it's most focused at retrospectives and standups. Especially so during standups you should be listening for implied impediments, half said problems or off handed replies.

    • Switch off your ears sometimes and listen with your eyes, observe body language and how people physically rather than verbally react to something/one.

    • Listen to your system, are you ignoring what your velocity is telling you, is your visible workspace showing you a waterfall project. Forget the people for a moment and take a deep breath, examine what your system is telling you, and if you are missing something, adjust your system to tell you the right thing. An example for me was tracking story point acceptance on the same chart as your burndown, you can see very quickly if you have a 2 week waterfall or not.

  • Empathy: Coaching is integral to the role of a Scrum Masters, can you really be an effective coach without empathy? There is a great saying "when it's a people problem, the problem is not the problem", without empathy can you really understand why Joe turns up to standups late every day.

  • Healing: Actually I think this is probably the hardest part of the role and the bit that's most often seen from a Scrum Masters point of view as a line mangers job. This line is blurred at the best of times. My take on this is, if you can handle the situation then why escalate it! Helping team members resolve issues, encouraging personal growth within individuals and yourself, and smoothing transitions to Agile all fall under healing's banner.

  • Awareness: Self awareness is a crucial skill for any leader, especially a leader who in most cases is leading without the influence of a management hierarchy to help them. Understanding how you act and deliver a message is crucial in conveying information well to other people. Another element of awareness is to really know what is going on at all levels of a project, but with a different focus that, say a traditional PM may have. Really understanding a project and its impacts on the rest of your organisation from point of view that there the enable the team see the bigger picture and to help them act and react appropriately. Rather do this, than trying to make yourself a central point of knowledge to improve your levels of control on a project.

  • Persuasion: The original definition focuses on the differences between persuasion and convincing. Stating that the latter is were the servant leader has their power. As an Agile servant leader I think that one of the hardest things we have to do is work with a team that is new to any Agile practices. I suggest in this case that you may need to be persuasive in order to become convincing. What I mean by this is that, you may need all of your skills to persuade the team to give stand ups a go. Once you gain their trust that all this mumbo jumbo you have been spouting actually works, it's much easier to switch styles and convince them to try something else. So your ability to influence by convincing people, needs to come from a base of trust, honesty and knowledge, not from organizational hierarchy or emotional blackmail.

  • Conceptualization: This aspect of servant leadership I found particularly difficult to get my head around. Especially this bit on reflecting on the meaning of life, I am not I am far enough on my journey that I can equate the meaning of life to my next project. However where I do see this applying is when you look back at the first sentence I discussed "...implies a comprehensive view of the quality of people, work and community spirit" so conceptualization for me is more about how you view your Agile journey and the Agile journey you wish to take the team on. This might start at weeding out some excessive test documents with a view of eventually using continuous integration and deployment.

  • Foresight: I think foresight is a excellent characteristic for a Scrum Master but I believe that it's not a natural gift. Foresight comes from knowledge and experience and the ability to observe a pattern and then translate that into an outcome. For example, if the team want to take on a mass of large stories and start them all at once, unless this triggers some sort of pattern recognition in your head then you will be constantly surprised (hopefully only the first time).

  • Stewardship: The other characteristics help us with the what and the how of servant leadership, but stewardship is for me a fundamental "why". Try to create an environment and work society that you would want all your friends to work in. The final legacy would be to create workplaces and styles of working that you would want your children to have on their very first day at work.

  • Commitment to the growth of people: The first place to get a handle on this is to remember to call people, people and not resources. Wood and coal are resources and unless you are a slave trader people are not resources! If you don't get a buzz out of seeing team members flourish and rocket past you then stop now, this type of job is really not for you. The book "Agile retrospectives" has a strap-line "Making good teams great!", as servant leader should have the saying "making good people great!"

  • Building community: The way I see this, is start with your immediate team and lead them to become a strong supportive community, they will in their turn help inspire other teams to work in and behave in ways that further build the community.

So after reading this and reflecting on how I see servant leadership and the team admin issue I discussed at the start of this post, I see it like this.

On one hand if the team admin enjoyed the work, it gave her a sense of growth and helped bring her closer to the team she was supporting. Then supporting this and letting it happen is the right thing to do.

On the other hand if you are dumping what you see as a menial task on a junior resource then you have a lot to learn about servant leadership.

What have I learned as I took the time to look into the world of the servant leader?

Servant leaders have to be brave, fearless and value others needs well before their own. Maybe I get this right for a couple of hours a day but I certainly don't get it right all of the time. For those of you who get this right more times than not, then I respect and wish I had the strengths you do.


Tags: Agile, Leadership, Scrum.