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Servant Leadership for Projects with Agile Techniques

Leadership has long been an interesting and intriguing topic for researchers and practitioners. It’s not about power but influence; it is about empowering people. Project management literature talks about several leadership styles – from autocratic leadership to participative leadership – that can be adapted by project managers.

In a project that follows agile project management techniques, the typical notion of team members reporting to a manger does not exist. Agile teams are self-organizing in nature. That does not mean that the need for leadership is undermined in such projects. On the contrary, leading and influencing teams was never so challenging. “Servant leadership” has the potential to be the solution for the leadership model in projects that adopt agile project management techniques. This article explains servant leadership by means of an example.

Servant leadership
Wikipedia defines “a servant leader is servant first, who contributes to the well-being of people and community. The servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

The term “servant leadership” was coined by Mr. Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay that he first published in 1970. In his essay, he said, “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.”

The idea of servant leadership can be traced to the fourth century B.C. Chanakya, one of the best known scholars of ancient India, in his book Arthashastra, wrote that a king (leader) is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.

Lao-Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, wrote that “the highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.”

All the above notions and thoughts are pointing to the same direction. The leadership model that works in agile project management techniques should be service-oriented. The role of an agile coach or a scrum master fits the bill pretty well. An agile coach is a servant leader that takes the team to its destination.

A servant leader serves the team unequivocally. Leaders at this leadership model gain respect by serving the team. They listen to the team; they take cues from observing the team and empowering them in decision-making. Serving is a leadership attitude and a mindset.

Servant leadership in practice
Amy was the scrum master for a nine-member team that worked on making their software product mobile ready. For Amy, her team’s need came first. She did not stop at just being the process owner for the team; she also supported the team in achieving its goals. Her attitude reflected in the way she helped to remove the impediments faced by the team. When the team faced a delay in building a component, she helped the team to identify a reliable vendor and facilitate the negotiations that helped to get the component ready on time. Her team believed that she was a true leader without whom they could not have achieved on-time delivery.

The lesson here is that Amy’s leadership is the consequence of her mindset to serve the team. It is her courage and commitment to serve the team that made her a leader.

Many organizations like Southwest Airlines have been staunch believers of servant leadership. Many more organizations are embracing it today.

(Mr. Rathinakumar Balasubramanian, PMP, CSM and PMIACP, is enterprise agile transformation leader at Intuit. He is an agile project management transformation expert and a seasoned enterprise agile coach with more than 18 years of experience in the IT industry.)

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