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Servant Leadership & The Agile Leadership Transformation

By Ron Montgomery (1067 words)
Posted in Leadership & Teambuilding on March 5, 2014

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Leaders in countless I.T. organizations see themselves as “the smartest person in the room.”  They solve problems that exceed the grasp of their direct reports.  They position themselves as decision-makers and information traffic cops.   They established their reputations for brilliance early in their careers and were promoted quickly because so many I.T. organizations value subject matter expertise over “soft skills” and promote people accordingly.  

 

So if this style of leadership is so common, what’s wrong with it?  For one thing, it leads to some very un-agile behaviors.  Team members do not feel empowered because they know that decisions are made by the geniuses in the corner office rather than self-directed teams.  They see no need to bother with story-point estimating because their superiors will tell them how long the project should take.  And sprint retrospectives?  Not needed.  Every single day the boss, who could do their jobs better if he just had the time, tells them where they need improvement.   

 

Organizations that are serious about agility require a different type of leader:  a servant-leader. The term “servant-leader” was coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, who stated that the servant-leader “…focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities in which they belong.”  See “Additional Resources” below for more information about this concept.  The following blog provides a sample of how servant-leaders think which, in turn, leads to behaviors that empower agile teams and contribute to a culture in which agility can thrive.

 

Servant Leadership & The Agile Leadership Transformation

 

My job is to make the teams successful. 

 

Early in my management career the executive to whom I reported made it clear to me that my job is to make him successful.  My former boss was a brilliant political player and he went on to have a successful and lucrative career working in some traditional large companies.  But he would struggle if he were placed in a modern, agile organization.  

 

The thoughts of a servant-leader would be completely different from that of my former boss.  Such a leader would view the success of his team as the means of achieving that success and would behave accordingly.  He would ensure the team has the resources it needs and would seek to remove obstacles that impede the team’s progress.  

 

My job is to develop people, not systems.

 

The typical IT manager seeks to achieve outstanding performance by focusing on processes and data.  He thinks that if he tweaks the workflow and captures some additional metrics, he can improve team performance.  He views the people as interchangeable:  if a Java developer quits, the staff augmentation firm can get a replacement in a week or two. 

 

A servant-leader thinks differently.  She understands that she is leading knowledge-workers rather than a set of cogs in a complex system.  Particularly when they work as part of a productive team, knowledge-workers can solve problems and create solutions far beyond the capabilities of their brilliant managers, but their skills must be cultivated and honed.  These skills of course include subject matter expertise, but they also extend to soft skills like effective listening, negotiation and problem-solving.   A servant-leader will think of herself as a coach, teacher and mentor to her direct reports to ensure they perform to their potential.   

 

The team will solve the problem – not me. 

 

The “smartest guy in the room” is short on patience and long on self-esteem.  He is always willing to set aside his job of planning, organizing, staffing and controlling in order to jump in to deal with the crisis of the day.  Problem solving provides immediate gratification and allows him to go home at the end of the day feeling as if he has accomplished something.

 

By contrast, the servant-leader allows the team to solve the crisis of the day without direct intervention.  He may provide coaching, advice or additional resources to the team, but he lets them work out the solution.  And he makes sure the team gets the credit for the solution.  The servant-leader understands that, over time, the problem solving skills of the team will exceed his own abilities.  And that won’t hurt his self-esteem one bit.  

 

 

The servant-leader is presently a rare species, but not an endangered one.  As organizations make the agile transformation, they find that they need to transform their culture and values.  As they do so, they will find that the servant-leaders are promoted and the “smartest guys in the room” are no longer in the room.


  

Additional Resources:


The Center for Servant Leadership

 

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) blog on Principles of Lean/Agile Leadership:

 

 

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Written by Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC Ron is certified as a Project Management Professional, Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified ScrumMaster with over 35 years of hands-on experience in business planning, software development, process improvement & deployment of software solutions.  By partnering with clients to drive business value from technology projects, Ron assists clients with business planning, IT strategy, project and program management, vendor selection and team training/mentoring.

  

Do you have a management question for Ron? Please visit our Project Management Community and he will be happy to help: Ask an Expert

  

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