A servant leader is a leader, who rises by lifting others. As opposed to traditional leader, who drives performance by using power and control, directing and managing, measures success through output and thinks everything is about him, servant leader will do whatever it takes to help people win. He leads by example, is a great motivator, and is focused on providing the support needed by the teams.
To lead or to serve first?
The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his essay The Servant as Leader. In the essay that was first published in 1970, Greenleaf said, it all begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first, not lead. The ambition to lead comes because of that choice. “That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions …,” he writes.
While traditional leaders accumulate and exercise power as the ones at the top of the pyramid, servant-leaders focus on the growth and well-being of people and communities they belong to. Instead of owning powers, they share them. They put the needs of others first and help people develop and perform as highly as possible. By serving them, they help them grow as persons, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely for them to become servants.
Are you a traditional or servant leader?
From traditional manager to servant leader
To become a servant leader, a traditional manager needs to undergo some sort of transformation. As Greenleaf states, “Good leaders must first become good servants.” He explains this with transformational patterns for a traditional manager moving to a servant leader. His ‘from’ and ‘to’ states are:
- From coordinating team activities and contributions to coaching the teams to collaborate
- From deadlines to objectives
- From driving toward specific outcomes to being invested in the program’s overall performance
- From knowing the answer to asking the teams for the answer
- From directing to letting the teams self-organize and hit their stride
- From fixing problems to helping others fix them
Servant leader in SAFe
SAFe® (Scaled Agile Framework for Enterprises®), describes a servant leader as someone who:
- Listens and supports teams in problem identification and decision-making
- Creates an environment of mutual influence
- Understands and empathizes with others
- Encourages and supports the personal development of each individual and the development of teams
- Coaches people with powerful questions rather than use authority
- Thinks beyond day-to-day activities; applies systems thinking
- Supports the teams’ commitments
- Is open and appreciates openness in others
In SAFe, the role of servant leaders falls to Scrum Masters, Release Train Engineers (RTEs), Solution Train Engineers (STE) and SAFe Program Consultants (SPCs), who embrace, embody and showcase mindset and Lean-Agile principles of SAFe. Regardless of the level they are working at, they all have one characteristic in common: they guide and foster better ways of working.
Servant leaders in SAFe coach others to become more aware of new practices and mindset and they increase SAFe’s effectiveness. By actively listening, they connect with other people within the organization, they continuously serve the teams, enable product delivery, and by doing this they benefit the whole enterprise. Their role is to make people feel safe in voicing their thoughts and opinions, grow, become innovative and collaborative. Servant leadership also helps the enterprise to relentlessly improve, expand coordination, enables knowledge transfer and consistent flow of information.
Servant leader helps his teams to become self-organized
One of the goals of servant leadership is also to enable teams to become self-organized. By becoming self-organized, teams become more motivated, deliver more and better value and work gets done faster. Because they are allowed to make their own decisions, success is achieved collectively and because they own collective responsibility, individual failures are automatically compensated for and there is less blaming and pointing fingers. Self-organizing teams also have a record of having an increased performance, which is a result of their constant collaboration and teamwork. Mutual help and coaching within the team are constantly being encouraged and members also know when to ask for help from outside the team, if they feel the need.
But how does servant leader encourage and achieve self-organization for his team? Step one would be to decentralize most of the decisions that affect the team and let team decide for itself. A servant leader should then empower his team, provide members with all necessary information and skills, remove impediments and help his team to continuously improve.