Servant-Leadership Revisited

Mitch Malloy
Mitch Malloy

If you walk around in Agile circles, you’ll hear the phrase “Servant-Leader” all the time:

  • “The Scrum Master is Servant-Leader to the team.”
  • “Create a culture of ‘Servant-Leadership’.”

Practically speaking, though, what does it really mean to be a Servant-Leader? We hear the term so often it may have become a cliché. Practically speaking, how can we cultivate a culture of ‘Servant-Leadership’ if we don’t stop to consider what it means?

There can be a natural, internal tension between being a servant and a leader, and a person can be a servant or a leader and yet fail to be a Servant-Leader. Read that again and ponder it for a moment. When we think of servants, we typically consider them as being hierarchically beneath the person they serve and when we think of leaders we often consider them as above others in the organizational structure or team dynamic. But if we stop to think about it briefly, a servant is simply someone who serves while a leader leads others. There is nothing intrinsically hierarchical about these roles. A servant is not necessarily lower and a leader isn’t required to be over someone else to lead them. No pecking order is required.

We know that someone can serve others poorly. People will often complain about receiving bad service at a restaurant or from a service provider. Likewise, leaders can steer others well, not-so-well, or even in a completely wrong direction.

When I was younger, having just transitioned from active duty Navy to the Naval Reserves, I was assigned temporarily to the Pentagon for 2 weeks. One day while waiting in the lunch line with an active duty Master Chief, a couple of sailors started to get into an argument, and as things were beginning to escalate, the Master Chief turned to me and said: “Sir, aren’t you going to do something?”. Now if you don’t understand the hierarchy in the Navy, let me explain. A Master Chief is treated with great respect because it’s the highest enlisted rank, and most enlisted men never reach that pinnacle of success. But every officer is senior to a Master Chief in terms of rank, and I was an officer. Despite that, I felt inadequate for my position not because of my training or expertise but because I was a reservist. In my own eyes, I didn’t consider most reservists to be competent or worthy of respect, and so I said to the Master Chief: “I’m just a reservist.” To which the Master Chief replied: “Sir, you are an officer in the United States Naval Reserve.”

He was right. I realized in that moment that I was leading poorly through my passivity, and being the senior most person, I had a responsibility to step into a heated situation and cool it down, so I did just that. The Master Chief and I proceeded to eat our lunch and I thanked him for spurring me on to the action that was needed.  And after lunch, I did what I was in the habit of doing at that time and went off to pray for a few minutes before starting back to work. In that moment of introspection, the thought occurred to me: I was a leader. I could be a good leader or a bad leader, but either way, I was a leader. The Master Chief could have easily stepped into the situation, and I have no doubt he would have done just that if I hadn’t stepped up. He led me in the way I needed to become a better me.

I learned a lot that day, about myself and about what it means to be a leader. Leaders take action that makes others want to follow, but a leader doesn’t have to be in a leadership position to drive others into action.

We used to have a term that I don’t hear much anymore: Public Servant. It’s been replaced more often than not by the word “Politician”, which is how we view most of the people in office. Politicians lead others, but they often do so in pursuit of their own interests. Contrast that to what it means to be Public Servant, someone who serves the public, a service that is done from a position of strength and benevolence.

We often confuse role and position, but the calling of positional leaders is to demonstrate a higher standard for oneself with:

  1. A humble awareness of how a higher position can be abused, and
  2. An intentional determination to see oneself as an equal in a different role.

So practically speaking, what does this servant-leadership look like in an Agile organization? It means that leaders encourage the smart people they’ve hired to respectfully challenge everything that doesn’t make sense. It means that people don’t stay in their lanes, but actively look for how they can help each other out. They actively seek to serve and lead, filling in each other’s gaps as needed on the journey toward a clear and common goal. It means that everyone seeks to lead others to relentlessly improve in the delivery of value.

It also means that we don’t expect our strengths to be the strengths of our team mates. Our unique strengths are played as needed to complement the strengths of our team. Like a sports team, we may need to position our individual strengths in preference for how they can best help the team win… because the fact remains: we either win or lose together.

copyright ©2019 Mitchell Malloy, BW-e LLC