Servant Leadership: How Does Leadership Work in an Agile Context?

Photo of Sohrab Salimi
Sohrab Salimi

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The roles of Scrum Master and Product Owner are initially seen by many as leading positions with classic leadership tasks. But instead of telling the team members what to do in detail, Scrum Master and Product Owner act as Servant Leaders who help the team to organize itself.

You are wondering how a leadership model with a “serving leader” can work and what advantages it brings? In this article you will get a clear Servant Leadership Definition, so that you can support your team on the road to success.

6 Advantages of Self-Organized Teams

Why should a Servant Leader support a team in self-organisation in the first place? Doesn’t the classic (Tayloristic) management model say that it is better for a smart head to think and for the others to implement the guidelines?

Indeed, self-organized working is not only anchored in the Agile Manifesto – its advantages are also obvious:
1.Teams that share a vision conveyed by leadership are more motivated and deliver more and better output than if they simply follow orders from superiors.
2. Flexible options for action are not disturbed by bureaucracy and detours via hierarchical levels, as the team itself makes the decisions: this enables fast and agile work.
3. Team success is achieved independently of the leadership qualities of an individual.
4. A self-organized team is responsible as a collective, so that individual failures are automatically compensated for.
5. Mutual help and coaching within the team are encouraged, which ensures faster and more efficient development – and thus an increase in performance.
6. The self-organized team takes needed help from outside in time, because it knows best what it needs.

Even Self-Organisation Needs Leadership

It is now clear that self-organization in teams brings crucial advantages for success. But since most people are still characterized by classical leadership in hierarchical structures, they must first be trained to organize themselves. So if you are a Scrum Master, it is up to you to lead your team into self-organization within the framework of your Servant Leadership.

But what exactly does self-organisation actually mean and how do you achieve this for your team?

  • Unlike the classic management style, you first have to decentralize most of the decisions that affect the team. This means that it is not you as a manager who decides for the team, but the team is given permission to decide for itself.
  • In order for your self-organized team to be able to make its own decisions, you have to empower the team, i.e. you make sure that the team has the necessary information and skills.
    Once you have created these conditions as a Scrum Master, you are already acting as a Servant Leader. What else belongs to this modern and agile leadership style, we will look at in detail below.

Servant Leadership – A Definition

The term Servant Leadership was originally coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Servant Leadership means that one person in their role as Servant Leader supports the team and serves them in a way that allows them to perform their tasks in a self-organized way to best implement the product vision according to the principles and business goals of the company.

Accordingly, a Servant Leader has the following tasks:

  • to encourage the team,
  • enable it, and
  • to provide for the necessary further development,
    so that the team can continuously improve its performance (visible among others in velocity and customer satisfaction).

By ensuring that (in line with the Scrum values) courage, openness, respect, focus and commitment are lived within the team, the Servant Leader creates an environment in which progress, creativity and improvement are possible. The focus of a Scrum Master as a Servant Leader, for example, is always on the needs of the team and therefore automatically on those whom the team serves – the customers.

This is What Makes the Servant Leader

A Servant Leader is not concerned with his power or his title. In fact, he is not primarily concerned about himself, but about the team and what the team can create for the company and its customers under ideal conditions. This voluntary surrender of power not only makes the team members feel more secure – it also makes them feel responsible for the success of the team and they show the corresponding commitment.

“Servant Leaders serve by leading and lead by serving”
Jean Tabaka

Another important characteristic of the Servant Leader is that he really trusts the team members to make their own decisions. He is therefore able to trust the team – something that is extremely difficult for leaders with traditional leadership styles because they have never learned to give up control.

The Servant Leader knows how crucial transparency and regular, direct communication are to success and actively creates an atmosphere for this. He attaches great importance to a functioning cooperation and a collaborative corporate culture. He is emphatic and always has an open ear for the team. The Servant Leader is modest by nature and takes himself back, because it is much more important to him to do something meaningful for the team, the company and its customers.

Conclusion: Leadership in an Agile Context

Servant leadership in an agile context means the opposite of what we know (and fear) from traditional leadership:

Instead of exercising power and relying on rights that arise from a hierarchy, the Servant Leader promotes a collaborative approach within the team – and thus throughout the company.

A good Servant Leader supports the team members so that they can feel secure. This not only ensures that employees have the courage to bring out the best in themselves and to contribute their own ideas and solutions. It also makes sure that employees trust you as a Servant Leader and follow you willingly and voluntarily. It can be that easy to turn employees into fans of your company which can be a good start if you want to start an agile transformation.

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