The Servant Leader

One of the core tenants of any good Agile practice has to be the openness and transparency of the exercise. There’s little room for opacity in a well run Scrum – both within the development group as well as with the business team & users. One of the phrases that I both love & hate is the expression: Servant Leader.

I love the concept of the Servant Leader because it immediately conjures images of someone in an authority role serving those who he* is responsible for. It inverts the traditional image of “boss” and “worker.” Thanks to this inversion, you’ve effectively cleared the mental reasons for someone in a worker role to avoid sharing an idea, opinion, or concern. At the heart of Agile is the need for the leader to quickly understand the true facts of the situation, whether it’s an estimate that’s turning out wrong, a requirement that’s incomplete, or a technical hurdle that needs more hands. In a Servant role, it’s my responsibility to take care of the hassles, nonsenses, and nuisances. Cook the food, feed the troops, clear the table, and get ready for the next meal.

Thesaurus entries for the word: Servant… Not particularly uplifting…

I hate the concept of the Servant Leader because it’s not really authentic. Sure, I’m going to do whatever I can to make you happy – but if I’m not sold on the results there’s no real question of how these roles are going to change. You’re going to be responsible for the outcomes and I’m going to be responsible for figuring out if there’s any consequences. This notion of servitude and being subject to each other can compete with traditional structure and focus. The expression “servant” seems dated, and in our modern language might seem insensitive. I don’t have any first-hand experience with this (I’ve never had a coworker or colleague say that it’s offensive) – but if it were, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Ultimately, I think the strength of the intent is most important. I think the keys to successful team leadership emerge when thinking about successful hospitality concepts. Be a good host. Treat everyone like they’re in your home. I recall one thing that I was able to do for my team: Make them coffee. For some reason we had an office setup that didn’t have a coffee maker, so every morning (I always tried to get in before the development team, just to gather my thoughts and prepare), I would walk down the hall, brew a pot of coffee, and bring it to the main office. And every morning I’d grab a sticky note and put up some kind of motivational phrase, inside joke, or reminder of where we were in the release cycle: “Last Day to QA – Squash those BUGS!”

I think of this as “team host” – sorta like “soccer mom for dev’s.” I suppose they probably would’ve been happy with mid-afternoon orange slices too (reminder for next time). And I always capped the day by walking around asking everyone on the team if there was anything else I could do for them today. It’s a small gesture, but again those are hospitality concepts that pay huge dividends in clearing the way for your team to be successful and thrive.

I’m definitely searching for the right replacement in my vocabulary for Servant Leader. “Host Leader” doesn’t quite ring right. “Team Steward” is closer, but stewardship brings up a whole host of other connotations. I do like the phrase “Team Ambassador” – seems to ring a little closer to the role of host + responsible + broker. What do you think?

* I use the “he” gender assignment only because I’m a man and it’s easier to self-identify and the whole he/she seems like an obnoxious way to write.