What is a Servant Leader?

By | June 28, 2019

“Scrum Mastery is about servant leadership.” “The best leaders are servant leaders.” We hear statements like this a lot in our agile world. But what does it actually mean?

It all started in 1970 with Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay “The Servant as Leader”.

What does Servant Leadership mean?

Greenleaf says that a great leader is, first and foremost, a servant to those they lead. They have a natural feeling and desire to serve, making sure that “other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” It’s not a choice; it’s who they are at their core. They constantly ask themselves “how can I use myself to serve best?”

After that, they aspire to lead others.

Image courtesy of siewlian

So what’s with the leader part?

They are better than most at showing the direction to go, because they always have a goal and can articulate it to anyone who is unsure of it. Their direction might come from group consensus or from the leader’s inspiration.

The leader’s inspiration comes from them being able to look at the current situation, recognise a pattern (from their library of experience), then decide what the best option to proceed is. As Greenleaf puts it, it’s a combination of having a sense for the unknowable and being able to foresee the unforeseeable. Making a decision when they have just enough information (highlighting that we never have ALL the information we’d like to have).

And with this sense of direction, the leader pulls people with them. “I will go; come with me!” the leader says, inspiring others to follow. There is a mutual trust: everyone knows that the route is uncertain and probably dangerous, but they have confidence in the leader and the leader, in turn, trusts the followers. There is, as we would say in coaching, unconditional positive regard. Imperfections are tolerated (which is a good job, because we are all imperfect). As Goethe said, “When we take people … merely as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they should be, we improve them as far as they can be improved.” Which helps everyone involved.

One trait that is ever-present in a servant leader is the ability to listen. “A true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first” Greenleaf writes.

How do they become a Servant Leader?

A servant leader is given their authority to lead from those they lead. Their followers freely and knowingly grant the leadership status.

What is a Servant Leader not?

They are not a leader who then thinks about being a servant. They are not someone who wants to manipulate their staff by appearing to want to help them.

Do you think you’re a servant leader?

Best test, according to Greenleaf, is to ask yourself “do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

He also adds that we should consider those who are least privileged: will they benefit, or, at least, will they not be further deprived by your actions?

Is it all going to be okay, then?

Greenleaf’s warning is that our worst enemy is the good, intellectual people who fail to lead but also refuse to follow a Servant Leader; instead they focus on being critics and experts. They demand more evidence and procrastinate … then follow a non-servant leader due to inactivity.

What are you?


“The Servant as Leader” by Robert K. Greenleaf can be bought for $10 from www.greenleaf.org

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