The Role of Servant Leadership in Agility


Managing and establishing thriving relationships with teams is a delicate and complex process, especially in times of uncertainty. Leaders have the responsibility to guide their teams through what's coming, all while the organization continuously transforms, in order to thrive. It adds up to an enormous amount of responsibility on their shoulders.

Good leadership has always been a key part of Agile, forward-thinking, and successful organizations. In fact, agility is currently redefining leadership as we know it. Specifically, the concept of servant leadership is an overlooked but key element of successful business agility.

Adopting the philosophy of serving instead of leading in the “traditional” way can transform teams and organizations, making them more impactful, efficient, and unified. Let’s understand what servant leadership is and how you can implement it.

Servant Leadership Overview

The term servant leadership was first coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf in his essay The Servant as Leader. What he laid out was dramatically different from the traditional hierarchal leadership concept we’re familiar with. In servant leadership, the roles are reversed -- the leader’s primary focus is serving the team and ensuring their wellbeing rather than managing.

The philosophy of servant leadership is made up of a set of practices that aims to improve organizations by serving team members and creating a cohesive and compassionate work environment. The traditional management styles often fail to treat employees as human beings with emotions, dreams, and fears. Servant leadership is centered around creating psychological safety within teams, something essential in modern Agile organizations. 

Of course, something like this concept of leadership existed long before 1970, with figures like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa as great examples of servant leadership in action. But formalizing the concept and giving us a term we can use to describe it has made servant leadership far more prominent.

Key Differences between Traditional and Servant Leadership

With servant leadership in Agile organizations, the servant leader doesn’t apply power over the team, but rather shares it with everyone. They prioritize the needs of others and aim to help each member grow and create value as efficiently as possible. This requires a healthy work environment and psychological safety that’s often missing from traditionally structured organizations. 

The role of the typical “manager”  being the center of attention is embedded in our culture. When people close their eyes and imagine a manager, it’s usually someone about as far removed from servant leadership as possible. That’s why the biggest challenge is often overcoming this idea and stepping into uncharted territory that rewrites the meaning of leadership.

Traditional Leadership

Servant Leadership

Traditional leadership focuses on improving the business 

Servant leadership focuses on serving and empowering the team

Success is measured by output

Success is measured by the growth and development of individuals

Traditional leaders speak more

Servant leaders listen more

Power and hierarchy are used by one person to control the team

Power is shared with the team and a flatter structure is employed

How Does Servant Leadership Apply in Agility?

Servant leadership and agility fit together beautifully. In fact, without leaders focused on empowering team members, Agile hardly works at all. Having everyone on a team centered around the vision behind the priorities is what unlocks true business agility for organizations. To get there you need the bottom-up autonomy and empowerment that servant leaders create.

In Agile organizations, the leader is in the role of project manager, Product Owner, or Scrum master. They are focused on a creative, collaborative, and supportive environment that motivates people to create real value. Instead of giving detailed instructions on what the team should do, the leader supports them to be more autonomous and free to work on creative and unexpected solutions.

This is why servant leadership is so critical. A manager obsessed with micromanaging or exercising power and authority for their own sake will completely destroy the key benefits agility brings.

Advantages Servant Leadership Unlocks

Servant leadership may be unconventional compared to what we’re used to but it’s definitely worth the hype in the Agile community.

Boost team member performance

Servant leaders help team members be proactive and motivated when it comes to their workload. People always work more efficiently when someone is there, rooting for them, actively supporting them, and appreciating their efforts.

Enable business change

When you have the proper work environment for teams to flourish, so can your entire organization. We recently sat down with Anthony Coppedge to get his take on agility in sales, and he gave us a great example of how managers get more value when serving people. 

Anthony was speaking with a sales representative and asked her why she was using a strategy she knew wasn’t working. She responded that it was because the Chief Digital Officer had told her to do so. They walked down the hall into his office together and spoke about why that sales strategy wasn’t working. The CDO was extremely grateful for her insights and the strategy was immediately adjusted based on the seller’s insights.

That sales representative was clearly used to viewing commands from management as absolute. It didn’t even occur to her that she should be able to work with her manager to find a better solution. At the same time, the manager hadn’t made it clear that they would like to hear this kind of feedback from their team.

This shows that organizations that move from a rigid, hierarchical, and siloed approach to sharing insights that can benefit everyone can see teams become more aligned, unlocking new opportunities to grow. Switching from a traditional to a servant leadership model is at the core of this shift.

Increase commitment to the organization’s vision

A servant leader is a person who inspires. From tasks to large projects, they always make sure the vision and mission are clearly communicated so the team knows the exact direction they should move towards. As a result, the team is more committed and motivated to deliver value.

What Does an Agile Servant Leader Actually Do?

On the most basic level, an Agile servant leader isn’t someone who manages people, they empower people. Their entire job is to make sure everyone has what they need to succeed. What makes a good servant leader is supporting the needs of your team and letting them pursue their own path while being aligned with the business objectives. 

Traditional methods like micromanaging and using power as a primary tool to influence people don’t produce the results that servant leaders in Agile organizations are able to. They’re good listeners when it comes to team members’ needs and use empathy and persuasion to find solutions instead of pressure and power.

The main focus that Agile servant leaders have is serving, listening, and responding to people’s needs. They make sure everyone is involved in important activities such as decision-making while staying committed to ensuring team members’ growth.

Thanks to proactive communication and alignment around business objectives, teams can be more autonomous and cross-functional. These invaluable characteristics improve effectiveness, adaptiveness to changing circumstances, and produce higher value to clients. By implementing servant leadership, organizations are better able to achieve all of the competitive advantages business agility brings. 

The Agile World Needs More Servant Leaders

When leaders focus on empowering individuals, the work environment shifts towards developing knowledgeable and skilled teams. As a result, organizations are more efficient and successful. 

The servant leadership concept has won the hearts of teams and leaders alike, who aim to be more Agile in their business endeavors. Successful companies such as Google apply this management style and report a dramatic increase in employee productivity and company revenue.

The leaders of tomorrow will use their power to serve their teams in the organizations of tomorrow which are Agile. The more the world evolves, the more we need to redefine what leadership means. To become an effective Agile leader, you’ll need the proper resources to equip you with the competencies and capabilities the role requires

As Agile servant leaders, the greatest honor you can offer people is to listen with the intention to understand, to offer our full attention, and to focus on the feedback loops on which the productivity and success of the Agile process rely.

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