More Servant Leadership is Needed, Not Less

February 25, 20134 min

I came across this 2010 post by Scott Bellware recently and felt it would be a good idea to respond.   I feel the entry misunderstands what is Servant Leadership and wanted to offer my views.  It is my opinion that what Scott identifies as robotic, mindless and a focus on orthodoxy is the result of too little Servant Leadership, not too much.

bob1For those not familiar, the term Servant Leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf over 50 years ago.  Greenleaf was a very accomplished, progressive and successful senior manager at AT&T – he was one of the first to promote women and African-Americans to positions of real authority within AT&T.  What he observed during his 38-year management career, he did not like.  Robert Greenleaf came to believe, what we describe in the Agile community as, command-and-control management was rigid, authoritarian and diminishing.  So he quit AT&T and dedicated remaining years of his life to promoting the idea that management should be dedicated to enriching the lives of individuals, building organizations founded on the ideas of sharing power, putting the needs of others first and helping people develop and perform as highly as possible.  The end goal of Servant Leadership is create a just and more caring world.

A favorite book of mine about Servant Leadership (Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership), defines Servant Leadership in a format that is easy to read and understand.  I have listed seven pillars are listed below and a short description of what each pillar means.

  1. Person of Character – the Servant Leader makes insightful, ethical and principle-centered decisions.
  2. Puts People First – a Servant Leader helps others meet their highest priority development needs.
  3. Skilled Communicator – the Servant Leader is a both an expert speaker and listener and demonstrates these attributes in every interaction with others.
  4. Compassionate Collaborator – a Servant Leader strengthens relationships, supports diversity and creates culture of sharing and collaboration.
  5. Foresight – the Servant Leader imagines possibilities, anticipates the future and proceeds with clarity of purpose.
  6. Systems Thinker – a Servant Leader thinks and acts strategically, manages change effectively and balances the whole with the sum of its parts.
  7. Moral Authority – the Servant Leader is worthy of respect, inspires trust and confidence and establishes quality standards of performance.

My personal favorite is Foresight – to have the ability to perceive the future and make intelligent choices regarding the future is profound and revolutionary.  Surprisingly, Foresight is something that can be learned if we stop focusing on being so busy and pay attention what is going on around us.

OK – so back to Scott Bellware and his article.  First, when Scott rails against Servant Leadership, he does so with the assumption “Servant Leadership” is just two words – “Servant” and “Leader” – put next to one another.  Rather than treating Servant Leadership as fully formed concept with over 50 years of writing and experience to back it up, he diminishes it.  This is not new – many people in the Agile community bounce this pair of words around without ever reading an article about Servant Leadership or thinking about it in a serious way.  Hopefully, I have done my part to fix this issue by providing a short bio of Robert Greenleaf, his goals and identifying the seven pillars of Servant Leadership.

Second, no where in his article does Scott discuss how he has seen the concepts of Servant Leadership be used incorrectly or to ill effect.  What Scott has identified is specialization, lack of technical skill and insufficient experience by consultants who claim to be experts with Agile software development.  Scott has also identified the lack of skill in management and the ability to manage complex software projects.  This has nothing to do with the weaknesses, practices or the principles of Servant Leadership.  Now Scott, might say that it was the focus on Servant Leadership that was the problem.  OK – but where in the article are we given examples of how Servant Leadership was used.  We are not given that because what Scott is really upset about is listed in my thrid point.

Finally, Scott claims that in order to be truly effective as an Agile consultant, one must be “active software developer” and that consultants who are not active software developers are “ticking time bombs of counter-productive guidance for software development teams.”  I do not agree with this at all, but I understand why an accomplished software developer might hold this perspective.  Scott’s perspective might have been true in the early 2000’s when Agile was developers talking about how to write great code.  In 2013, Agile has expanded to the entire business and the body of knowledge, toolsets and multiplication of technologies has increased dramatically since the Agile movement started.

IMO, it is impossible for someone to be an expert coder, a business visionary, a potent change agent and inspiring leader and still write code everyday.  What Scott wants cannot be provided by one person anymore like we could in the early 2000’s.  Is that the fault of Servant Leadership or the wrong expectations on what a consultant can really do when a manager hires one to help their software teams?