What is Servant Leadership?

May 3, 2017

The preferred leadership style for Scrum projects is Servant Leadership. This term was first described by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay entitled The Servant as Leader. Below is an excerpt where he explains the concept:

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….

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? (Greenleaf 1970, 6)

Elaborating on the writings of Greenleaf, Larry Spears identifies ten traits that every effective servant-leader should possess:

  1.  Listening—Servant leaders are expected to listen intently and receptively to what is being said, or not said. They are able to get in touch with their inner voice to understand and reflect on their own feelings.
  2.  Empathy—Good servant leaders accept and recognize individuals for their special and unique skills and abilities. They assume workers have good intentions and accept them as individuals, even when there are behavioral or performance issues.
  3.  Healing—The motivation and potential to heal oneself and one’s relationship with others is a strong trait of servant leaders. Servant leaders recognize and take the opportunity to help their colleagues who are experiencing emotional pain.
  4.  Awareness—Awareness and particularly self-awareness is a trait of servant leaders. This allows them to better understand and integrate issues such as those related to ethics, power, and values.
  5.  Persuasion—Servant leaders use persuasion, rather than their positional authority to gain group consensus and make decisions. Rather than forcing compliance and coercion as is typical in some authoritarian management styles, servant leaders practice persuasion.
  6.  Conceptualization—The ability to view and analyze problems (in an organization) from a broader conceptual and visionary perspective, rather than focusing on merely the immediate short-term goals, is a unique skill of good servant leaders.
  7.  Foresight—Their intuitive minds allow servant leaders to use and apply past lessons and present realities to foresee the outcome of current situations and decisions.
  8.  Stewardship—Stewardship demands a commitment to serving others. Servant leaders prefer persuasion over control to ensure that they gain the trust of others in the organization.
  9.  Commitment to the growth of others—Servant leaders have a deep commitment to the growth of people within their organization. They take on the responsibility of nurturing the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of others (e.g., providing access to resources for personal and professional development, encouraging workers to participate in decision making).
  10.  Building community—Servant leaders are interested in building communities within a working environment, particularly given the shift in societies away from smaller communities to large institutions shaping and controlling human lives.

Scrum believes that all leaders of Scrum projects (including the Scrum Master and Product Owner) should be servant-leaders who have the above traits.

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