Let me start by sharing a joke. I was telling a Manager (in an account which had recently adopted Agile) about how he needs to be a servant leader for his team. After a few minutes, I noticed him getting a bit agitated. A little taken aback, I asked him if anything was wrong and if he was feeling unwell. He said in a pretty angry tone, “You cannot call my team members my servants.” I responded that I wasn’t referring to his team as servants. To which he got even more agitated and almost yelled at me, “Are you calling me a servant?” It took me a better part of the next 10 minutes to calm him down.
For the ones who are not too clear about Servant Leadership, it is a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his essay of 1970 titled “The Servant as a Leader.” Simply put, it is a concept which talks about a leader being one whose natural feeling is to serve as opposed to lead. When you think of the term Servant as one who wishes to serve – Servant first as opposed to Leader first – it perhaps won’t be that hard to accept.
The philosophy of Servant Leadership goes very well with the Agile philosophy. If you study the Agile Manifesto and the principles, you will read terms like individuals, interactions, collaboration, trust etc. There is no concept of a hierarchy, no concept of a manager, as it tends to talk of self-managed/self-organized teams. Thus, a leader in this construct has to be one who rather than throwing rank, tries instead to help the team and makes sure that the immediate needs of the team are addressed and the immediate problems solved. So instead of asking a team why its stories don’t get accepted by the client, a Servant Leader will end up discussing how the acceptance criteria and definition of “done” can be better articulated.
While I believe every individual involved in Agile delivery needs to be a Servant Leader (and this is especially true for the ones high up in the organizational hierarchy), the most important Servant Leader in the entire chain is probably the Scrum Master.
In my mind, the Scrum Master is not a Manager – he is a member of the team but carries a position that I love to refer to as the ”First among equals.” And it is this person that has to exhibit the Servant Leadership traits and ensure success for the team. And this is a tough ask, because without formally being given an authority (read reporting), the Scrum Master is still accountable for the final success or failure of the team. So he needs to ensure that things get done by the team, and adopting the Servant Leadership traits will definitely help.