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What does Servant Leadership mean and how do you do it effectively?

It’s an interesting one. Many people are familiar with the term servant leadership but aren’t necessarily aware of what we are looking for in a servant leader.

The origin of Servant Leadership

Coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970 in his paper, ‘Leader as Servant’, it’s really a leader acting as a servant in service of a team or individual.

In its most basic form, a leader is someone who has followers.

In the Agile world, scrum masters and agile coaches are viewed as leaders in that they hold a vision that is so compelling, they acquire and nurture followers who buy into that leadership vision and want to contribute their time, effort, and skills to achieving that vision.

A scrum master does not carry authority in the same way that a project manager does.

Instead, they rely a great deal on coaching, listening, conversations, influence, and leadership to achieve their goals and objectives.

Influence versus Authority.

They acquire followers from the team that they serve.

They do so by creating an environment that is a better place to work, a better way of creating and producing products, and a more humane way of interacting and collaborating with one another.

Because the vision is so compelling, the team willingly follow their scrum master or agile coach forward.

Where does the Servant element come in?

Traditionally, we think of managers, or senior management as people in a position of authority and power. We may also have worked in environments where the senior leadership are bastions of control and command.

Respected, but often feared too.

The people who have the power to hire and fire at will. The people who have the power to make our working lives incredibly difficult, unfulfilling, and downright exhausting.

Where does the ‘servant’ element come into the equation of leadership or management?

Service to the team. Service to the organisation.

In creating and articulating a compelling vision for the team, the servant leader takes it a step forward by also actively helping the team to achieve that vision.

In creating an environment where people are creative and passionate about their work, they hold that space and usher in better ways of working and more effective ways of achieving goals.

In the case of a Scrum Master or Agile coach, they would also be actively working to remove any impediments to progress. Sometimes within the scrum team but often outside of the team, working with people in the organisation to help amend policies or remove barriers that stump the team.

They will be assessing what is slowing the team down, what is getting in their way, what is causing frustration, what policies are preventing people from doing their best work.

They will be assessing how people collaborate with each other and how well they are able to have conversations that nurture innovation and creativity.

They will be actively working with both individuals and teams to improve how they think, work, and grow. They will be actively coaching teams to find the best answers and solutions to the problems they encounter.

Their coaching will also help individuals and teams exploit opportunities available to them.

So, servant leadership is about service to the team. It isn’t about you. It isn’t about building a fiefdom within the organisation, it is instead about creating environments where others can thrive.

How do you become an effective servant leader?

You really need to believe in the vision and live and breathe the values and principles that define that vision.

You need to believe the best in your team and dedicate time, effort, and skills to helping your team achieve that vision.

You must craft a compelling reason for people to follow you and you need to earn the respect of your team through consistent action that is in service to the team as well as the organisation.

You need to show up everyday with a focus on helping the team become better through continuous improvement, learning and discussion. Help them understand why these elements are so important to the team and how that will translate into a better working environment for everyone.

Coaching plays an enormous role.

Instead of telling people what to do or being the lead decision maker, you are instead going to coach individuals and teams. Asking questions and actively listening to their responses. Challenging those responses and helping them dig deeper for better options and more opportunities to excel.

It’s about helping them develop the best solutions to the most compelling problems you face.

Demonstrating, day in and day out, that you are there to support them and help them become the best version of themselves that they can be. Demonstrating that you are actively helping them to become better and create a better environment to work within.

Doing this consistently builds trust. It also builds belief.

The team start to build momentum and evolve through continuous learning and improvement.

Soon, your compelling vision for the team becomes their reality. Something which they live and breathe every day.

It is incredibly rewarding, satisfying and fulfilling when you get it right.

If you like the idea of becoming a Scrum Master, visit our Certified Scrum Master course page.

If you are already a scrum master and would like to level up, visit our Advanced Certified Scrum Master course page.

If you have several years’ experience as a Scrum Master and wish to certify and validate your skills, visit our Certified Scrum Professional Scrum Master course page.

If you like the idea of mentored and coach-driven skills development, visit our Agile Coach Academy.

If you have identified coaching as an important skill to develop, visit our on-demand Introduction to Coaching course page.

For more information on John McFadyen, visit