Servant-Leadership: 'I will always stand at the back of line'
Leadership. This single word has the power to bring about confusion and clarity at the same time.
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently reading and thinking about leadership. What it means – generally and personally – and why we need it. I’ve been thinking more specifically of a particular kind of leadership, which as a concept is not new to society, but in practice is unknown to many.
Servant-leadership: a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organisations and, ultimately, creates a more just and caring world.
Although there are many articles and books written about servant-leadership, I still (more often these days) run into people, especially within the agile community of practice – and, more specifically, the Scrum community of practice – who don’t quite understand the concept of servant-leadership. When one hears the words servant-leadership, they might think of 'servant-leaders' as people with power and authority who do everything to please everyone. This cannot be further from the truth.
Let’s take a step back for some context. Servant-leadership as a concept has been around for many years. The phrase ’servant-leadership’ was first articulated in an essay by Robert K. Greenleaf called ‘The Servant as Leader’, published in 1970 long before Agile came into the picture. In that essay, Greenleaf said the following:
‘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.’ 
Who else needed to read that sentence more than once? A few of you, I’m sure, and that’s okay. I had to read that sentence at least two or three times to grasp the concept. What Robert K. Greenleaf does here, is essentially flip the traditional leadership pyramid (where a single person holds power at the top) on its head. Thus, instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. It’s a dizzying concept, isn’t it? Even Robert K. Greenleaf himself seemed to find it difficult to down servant-leadership with a single definition. He says:
‘One of the ‘marvellous’ things about servant-leadership is that there is no easy definition for it. We know what it is for – to use and share power wisely with an eye on making the world a better place – and we know what it results in – followers who are healthier, wiser, and freer, servants themselves – but there is no simple answer for what servant-leadership actually is.’
It’s taken me a good number of years to truly appreciate and learn what servant-leadership, and being a servant-leader, is all about. So, what is it that makes leading to serve such a powerful ideology? #storytime!
Power, authority and making it to the top
From the age of five, Saturdays were the days I would go to Scouts. I went every Saturday, without fail, and I loved it. I loved being outside, learning new and different problem-solving and survival skills. Most importantly, since this was a time when technology had not yet hijacked our every waking moment, it was great to see my friends, socialise and just enjoy the interactive atmosphere.
As time passed, my life evolved within my scouting community and I learned the importance of responsibility, accountability and leadership. I went on to become a group helper and then a group leader, attaining awards, badges and skills along the way. In 2012, I struck gold: at the age of twenty four, I was awarded the highest ranking position within my scouting division, Scouts Chief. This was a big moment for me. In fact, it was what I had been working towards my whole scouting life - I wanted to be at the top.
There’s an interesting statement right there: ‘I wanted to be at the top'. Upon receiving this position, I remember having two distinct feelings. The first was complete happiness because I, Chris, Christina, Tina, was going to do things the way I wanted to do them. The second emotion was complete and utter FEAR! Fear of not being listened to, fear of not being good enough, fear of failure (two very contradictory feelings themselves). Looking back, at the age of twenty four, I was eager, a little aloof and okay, perhaps slightly big-headed(!) BUT…I was only twenty four, I was still a kid, the world was still a new, big place and I had only really been working in industry for three years. My experience of being a leader was very limited. Little did I know, I had a long journey ahead of me: a journey of challenges, successes and most importantly, self-discovery. I learned what kind of leader I would become. What’s also interesting, is that as I write this post and take a step back, I can see what kind of leader I was back then, and it’s not one I would like to think that I am today.
Stepping back, and standing at the end of the line
There was a distinct moment during the years I was the Scouts Chief, that it really hit me what kind of leader I was expected to be and what kind of leader I wanted to be. One summer afternoon, my scouting division along with our division representatives, went on a group retreat. As any disciplined group of scouts, each and every member was in their clean cut uniform, marching towards our destination in two, parallel, straight lines. I had my second in command leading the way and filing behind were the leaders, helpers and the scouts themselves. I, however, followed quietly behind the scouts, at the end of the line. Not long after we had started marching, one of the division representatives approached me and quietly questioned me, ‘Why are you standing at the end of the line?’ I had to take a second to think about the question, as I couldn’t quite register what they were asking. Before I could answer, they continued with, ‘You should be at the front of the line, not at the end, you’re the commander and chief.’ Without really digesting what had just been whispered in my ear, I quickly ran to the front of the line and took my place.
After approximately two minutes of marching at the front, I started to feel strange. I couldn’t quite tell what this feeling was, but I remember I kept turning my head and looking back at my scouts and leaders. I did this at least five times in the space of two minutes. After two minutes, I decided to step to one side and went straight to the back of the line again. Now, you might be thinking that I just wanted control and I wanted to see if everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing and set them straight if they stepped out of line, but in actual fact it was the complete opposite. I wanted to make sure that if someone was unwell due to the sun’s heat that day, I could help them. I wanted to make sure that if there were any external dangers, I was aware of them. I wanted to make sure my scouts and leaders were safe, protected and – if the situation did occur where someone stepped out of line – I could help them get back into form through a reminder of the rules and their expected behaviour. This was the moment I knew what kind of leader I wanted to be: a servant-leader.
Everything changed from that point onwards.
Servant-leadership in the agile world
It’s no new concept that servant-leadership and the world of agile see eye to eye. While Robert K. Greenleaf describes the philosophy of servant-leadership in the context of society, many have linked it to the characteristics and behaviours of roles such as the Scrum Master as great examples of what servant-leadership is all about. A good friend of mine, the author Geoff Watts, has a great list of characteristics he believes are vital to great servant-leadership:
Being a great servant-leader calls for a certain set of characteristics :
Resourceful They are creative in removing impediments to productivity
Enabling They are passionate about helping others be effective
Tactful They are diplomacy personified
Respected They have a reputation for integrity both within the team and in the wider organisation
Alternative They are prepared to promote a counter-culture
Inspiring They generate enthusiasm and energy in others
Nurturing They enjoy helping both individuals and teams develop
Empathetic They are sensitive to others around them
Disruptive They break the old status quo and help create a new way of working
Embedding the philosophy of servant-leadership within the context of Scrum and the role of the Scrum Master, along with these sets of characteristics and behaviours, has led to shifts in how we develop teams and their ways of working. This ultimately changes how companies organise their work, value their people and build sustainable communities of practice, fostering autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Different shades of leadership are necessary!
Leadership is about influence, how you inspire and motivate the people within your teams and around you to action excellence. It’s about enabling and utilising each other's strengths to get the best from them through communication, collaboration and accountability.
Different organisations have their own views of leadership and what makes a good leader, and sometimes this can be a little outdated. This is especially true when thinking about the fast-paced and ever changing environment we live in today. It’s important, however, to remember that different organisations at different stages in their maturity will need varying styles of leadership throughout their lifespan and within their teams, departments and communities. A start-up, for example, might have very little management leadership but would focus a lot of their attention on technical leadership and coaching, whereas larger organisations who might want to start thinking about changing their ways of working will need more management leadership within departments and communities of practice to support and foster alignment between departments and teams. Remember, no two organisations – their starting points, their histories, their evolutions AND their futures – are the same.
This is only the tip of the iceberg...
Servant-leadership is a tremendous comprehensive topic and to be honest, I have only scratched the surface with this post. My personal journey with servant-leadership has been a pretty significant one, with a steep learning curve. With almost ten years of working in agile software development under my belt it's taken me a long time to fully appreciate what servant-leadership is all about. Even now, there’s still so much to learn and put into practice.
So here’s something to think about. If you are in a leadership position or you see yourself as a leader – whether it be a leader of a software development team, marketing department, community group, sports team, anything – think about yourself and the people you work with, who reports to you and who doesn’t (remember, there are many shades of leadership), and take a moment to reflect on your leadership style and what kind of leader YOU want to be.
To end things I wanted to share with you my slightly altered definition of what servant-leadership is to me, and how I enable and foster this practice within my role as a Scrum Master and Agile Coach.
Servant-leadership is a movement. It’s concerned with leading to serve others, and this journey starts with empathy and compassion. Where traditional leadership usually involves the exercise of power by the one at the top of the pyramid, the servant-leader enables and fosters a culture of ‘having authority with the people’, putting the needs and well-being of others and their communities first. In other words, servant-leaders turn the power pyramid upside down; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.
 Scrum Mastery: From Good to Great Servant Leadership by Geoff Watts