What Is Servant Leadership and How Does It Relate to Agile?

“Servant Leadership” is a commonly-used term in an Agile environment but if you asked people what it means, I’m sure you would get a number of different responses. For that reason, I think it is worthwhile to discuss “What Is Servant Leadership and How Does It Work in Agile?”

What Is Servant Leadership?

“Servant leadership” sounds like a manager who does nothing but get coffee, donuts, and pizza for the Agile team. Is that what it really is? (I don’t think so)

The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay that he first published in 1970 long before Agile came into being.   Here’s a definition of “servant leadership”:

“Servant leadership is characterized by leaders who put the needs of a group over their own. These leaders foster trust among employees by holding themselves accountable, helping others develop, showing appreciation, sharing power and listening without judging. While serving and leading seem like conflicting activities, these leaders are effective initiators of action.”


A “servant leader” doesn’t necessarily completely abdicate the leadership role and do nothing but get coffee, donuts, and pizza for the team.  He/she recognizes the importance of working through others and engaging and empowering others to use as much of their own capabilities as possible.  Here’s an excellent quote on that:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong”


What is Servant Leadership?

What Does it Really Mean to be a Servant Leader?

A major leadership principle that is applicable to any leadership role is that there is no single leadership style that works in all situations. A good leader should be capable of taking an adaptive and situational leadership approach that is appropriate to the people and the environment he/she is trying to lead.

With regard to servant leadership, the way the servant leader role is implemented will be very dependent on the capabilities of the Agile team you are leading and the environment you are part of. The goal should be to maximize the utilization of the capabilities of the entire team but that doesn’t mean a servant leader completely abdicates a leadership role and turns over all responsibility to the team. Determining the most effective servant leadership role requires some judgement:

  • If the team is very strong and very capable, the role of the servant leader may be limited to a facilitation role
  • If that is not the case, a more active leadership role may be needed by the servant leader

Basically, the servant leader needs to “fill the cracks” as much as possible to help the team become fully effective on their own.

Why Is This Important in Agile?

The idea of “servant leadership” is particularly important in an Agile environment because an Agile approach is best suited for projects with a high level of uncertainty.  In that kind of environment, a lot of individual creativity may be needed to find an optimum solution and maximizing the creativity of the team requires that the team be empowered as much as possible.

It is basically a softer leadership style that puts an emphasis on empowering others over a more controlled approach.  It is ideal for a highly uncertain environment that requires an adaptive Agile approach.  Naturally, it probably would not be so ideal for a more plan-driven environment where conformance to a plan is important.

To learn more about “Servant Leadership” and “Agile Leadership” in general, check out my Advanced Agile Project Management course. I’ve just added twelve new lessons on Agile Leadership to the course.