How to Implement Agile Transformation Through Servant Leadership

Leadership skill is the backbone of our very existence. The phenomenon of leadership starts with oneself and extends to all the other areas of human affairs. The philosophy of Agile servant leadership lends a new dimension to this inherent human skill of leadership.

What is servant leadership?

Investopedia define servant leadership as:

Servant leadership is a leadership style and philosophy whereby an individual interacts with others—either in a management or fellow employee capacity—to achieve authority rather than power.

As the name is self-explanatory, servant leadership has the spirit to serve rather than to dominate. Therefore, it is not a conventional style of leadership wherein there are elements of autocracy, transaction, or bureaucracy.

Its first priority is to serve the organization, employees, and community. Its main focus is to satisfy the needs of others rather than to validate its own existence. It thrives to achieve the growth and well-being of others through various methods of servant leadership.

Who is a servant leader?

The credit for coining the term “servant leadership” is often given to Robert K. Greenleaf, who published an essay called: “The Servant as Leader” in the year of 1970. His famous lines in the essay are:

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.

However, the idea of the servant leader existed even before it was made popular by Greenleaf. Chanakya, one of ancient India’s scholars in the 4th Century B.C., in his famous treatise “Arthshastra” writes: “… the king (leader) shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects (followers); the king (leader) is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.”

Hence, the philosophy of servant leader revolves around the concept of service and not power. In other words, service is the real power, and to serve is the real purpose of any servant leader.

It would be interesting to explore how the principles set forth in the Agile Manifesto find their resonance with this philosophy of Agile servant leadership, wherein service is the heart of the matter.

The Agile Manifesto and servant leadership

Four major principles in the Agile Manifesto underline the importance of servant leadership. They are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

These principles clearly reflect the true spirit of Agile servant leadership, which earnestly encourages the organizations, project managers, and the scrum masters to:

  • Make the driven individuals heart of the projects
  • Create the kind of environment and the support system wherein these spirited individuals can create the functional product
  • Trust these individuals and their skills
  • Make time for daily communication and collaboration between those who make business decisions and those who create the product
  • Maintain equanimity during the intense periods of inherent chaos and uncertainty.

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Enabling agile transformation through agile servant leadership

So, how does any organization, project manager, or scrum master enable the much-needed agile transformation through this philosophy of servant leadership?

There can be many ways to achieve this agile transformation. However, the first and the foremost, and absolutely non-negotiable, is to have a kind of leader who has a mindset of a true servant leader.

It is essential to have a well-trained leader in the intellectual and political culture of Agile and who has the quintessential spirit of servant leadership.

Let us compare the ways of traditional leadership with Agile servant leadership. This would give us clear insight into this beautiful process of agile transformation through servant leadership.

Areas of work Ways of traditional leadership Ways of servant leadership Benefits of servant leadership/expected Agile transformation
Decision-making process The smartest guy in the room decides the final word. The entire process of decision-making is conducted through the active participation of all the motivated individuals who are the pillars of the project. All the people feel valued. The end result is not a product of force but the product of value, belonging; passion; and labor of love.
Processes and data Traditional leadership focuses more on processes and the data rather than on the skills of individuals. It strives to achieve success by tweaking workflow and metrics rather than by empowering individuals. Agile servant leadership does everything to develop the skills of people who are actively engaged in product development. These skills include subject matter expertise, soft skills of effective listening, negotiation, and problem-solving. It creates an organization with robust and dependable teams that can take up any challenge.
Problem-solving process This form of leadership derives its sense of self from jumping into the crisis. It is ready to sacrifice its primary job of impeccable execution of the project for the instant gratification of solving the problem. Servant leadership is trained to be patient and trust the problem-solving skills of its teams. They may facilitate resources to solve the crisis, but they would avoid direct involvement in the process. Builds a strong organization and teams that trust themselves and know how to solve problems patiently, confidently, and skillfully.
Accountability Traditional leadership often prefers to set the blame for the failures. This creates a culture of fear and dishonesty. Servant leadership is often ready to learn the lessons from things that are inevitable to go wrong. It celebrates these lessons and moves on. Establishes a deeper sense of accountability, openness, and trust within the organization.
Leadership culture Focus on the betterment of the self. Focus on the betterment of others. Servant leadership’s attitude to consistently do things for the team’s growth creates a more sustainable organization.
Leadership perception Perceives processes, data, and metrics as the backbone to achieve success. Perceives processes, data, and metrics as tools to empower the individuals. It perceives individuals as the backbone to achieve success. Creates an organization that values the human mind and heart. It eventually helps tap into people’s highest creativity and productivity.

It is quite evident that the philosophy of servant leadership is in perfect alignment with the Agile Manifesto. It can play a significant role in creating true agile culture across the organization.

The role of a scrum master is very crucial in this entire agile transformation process. When the philosophy of servant leadership is at work in enabling the agile transformation, an organization needs a scrum master who has a true mindset of servant leadership.

The scrum master as a servant leader

According to the Scrum Guide:

The team servant leadership model in Scrum is designed to optimize flexibility, creativity, and productivity – let’s call it effectiveness.

There are 5 Scrum values – Openness, Respect, Commitment, Courage, and Focus. These are the exact values that form the heart of the philosophy of servant based leadership.

The scrum master is an individual who is a personification of these scrum values. She is there to serve the team, who too thinks and acts these values consistently.

As per the Scrum Guide:

The Scrum Master is a Servant-Leader for the Scrum Team.

In order to practice Agile servant leadership effectively, the designed role of the scrum master excludes organizational authority or power. Hence, the scrum master is:

  • The creator of a kind of an environment where people can contribute, participate actively, and flourish
  • The facilitator who empowers people to make required decisions
  • The leader of the scrum team who serves the development team, the product owner, and the organization to effectively implement Scrum framework and bring about a significant agile transformation
  • An enabler who inspires the team to tap into its highest potential
  • An effective coach who creates a high-performing, sustainable team
  • A builder who walks extra miles to build long-term and meaningful relationships with all the stakeholders.

Servant leadership examples at the workplace

Let us have a look at how servant leadership looks like when put into practice. In other words, let us explore Agile servant leadership in practice.

Ms. Asha Verma is a scrum master of a team consisting of 7 skilled individuals. Her team is working on a mobile-friendly software product. At times, her team does face delays in building one of the components of the product. In order to resolve this, she

  • Helps team identify the trusted vendor
  • Facilitates the necessary communication
  • Motivates the team to remove any impediments in the way of the timely delivery of the product.

In this same team of 7 members, one Ms. Pinky, has excellent business analysis and customer interview skills. However, Pinky has recently experienced personal tragedies of her father’s death and a bitter break-up.

Ms. Verma invites Ms. Pinky for a cup of coffee one fine day. She asks Pinky if she needs her help. Pinky agrees to be helped. And Ms. Verma then facilitates three coaching sessions for Ms. Pinky.

The coaching sessions aim to process the deep trauma and grief that Ms. Pinky has experienced in the near past. This helps Pinky be more self-aware, accept the tragedies with an open heart, and allow the healing process.

In both these scenarios, the Agile servant leadership of Ms. Asha Verma reflected that she is there:

  • To serve her team members no matter what the circumstances are
  • To empower them to make the right decisions instead of taking over as an autocrat leader
  • To support the team whenever they needed her during the project cycle
  • To walk that extra mile so that an individual can become better in all areas of her life
  • To encourage people to take charge of their lives.

This example of ideal servant leadership is about having a mindset to serve and not to dominate. It was Ms. Verma’s determination and courage to serve the team that made her a true embodiment of servant leadership.

Many organizations, including Southwest Airlines and Bacancy Technology, are consciously practicing this servant leadership philosophy to enable agile transformation across the organization.

Servant Leadership Characteristics

In the light of the discussion, we can easily identify the following as the major characteristics of servant leadership:

  • Unconditional commitment to serve the others
  • Puts people first
  • Focuses on the development of people, not the systems
  • Creates enthusiastic leaders and knowledge-workers instead of just producing cogs in a complex wheel
  • Creates a safe and empowering environment where creativity; productivity, and growth flourish
  • Thinks and acts strategically
  • Inspires trust, confidence, and respect
  • Practices empathy and compassion in all the situations
  • Listens generously and patiently
  • Speaks kindly but firmly
  • Leverages the art of assertiveness and persuasion over-exercising power; position; and status
  • Exhibits strong character and integrity in crucial moments of decision making
  • Remains grounded, humble, vulnerable, trustworthy, and authentic
  • Leads by example and conscience
  • It knows its purpose and exactly lives by it—to serve that larger good beyond the narrow sense of self.


​A famous Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu defines a leader as:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.

The characteristics of servant leadership reflect this profound philosophy of Lao Tzu.

We have explored all the aspects of servant leadership and how it can be a great force in enabling agile transformation in the organization.

However, how would any organization or a servant leader know if the philosophy of Agile servant leadership has indeed yielded its expected results across the organization?

Following is a quick test of the effective servant leadership:

1. Are you able to see and feel the growth of the people who are being served?
2. Are people wiser, healthier, empowered, and more driven now?
3. Are you able to sense more harmony and more collaboration between the people now?
4. Are people inspired enough to perform the role of a servant leader themselves?
5. How does your servant leadership affect the under-resourced segment of the community?

If most of the answers to these questions are in Yes, congratulations! Your servant leadership has indeed served its true purpose. If most of the answers to these questions are in No, it only means your organization still has work left to do. Your servant leadership style needs some more time, patience, and practice so that the highest organizational and individual potential can be tapped into. And, when there is a will, there is always a way!

If your organization is experiencing Agile transformation through organizational culture and values, then Agile servant leadership is a significant leadership style that you should adopt to make the transformation successful. If you are looking for a helping hand with Agile empowerment, then being an Agile and Lean software development leader, we can help you implement Agile through servant leadership. Bacancy is a globally renowned Agile software development company that is always committed to your growth.

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