Making sense of Servant Leadership

Nov 29, 2022 | AgileAus, Feature Articles, Guest Blogs

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development has nothing to say about leadership. However, when we talk about leadership for agility, we usually talk about Servant Leadership. I think we can lay the blame for this on Scrum.

“The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team.”
– Scrum Guide 2017, 2013 & 2011

Of course, the Scrum story on leadership changed in 2020 to “Scrum Masters are true leaders”, but I am not going to worry about that now.

What I am going to try to do is dig into this idea of servant leadership, and because I am a nerd, I am going to include some of the research findings on the topic. This will not be extensive; hopefully, it will be interesting and a little useful (neither of these is guaranteed).

“…As I ponder the fusing of servant and leader, it seems a dangerous creation: dangerous for the natural servant to become a leader, dangerous for the leader to be servant first, and dangerous for a follower to insist that he be led by a servant. ”
– R Greenleaf

What is Servant Leadership?

The origin of “Servant leadership” is mainly attributed to Robert Greenleaf (at least the phrase “Servant Leadership” is attributed to Greenleaf, behaving as a servant leader originates beyond Greenleaf, as Greenleaf acknowledged). Greenleaf wrote an essay and a book called “The Servant as Leader” which, among many other ideas, describes his ideas on how to be both a servant and a leader. To be a servant leader, according to Greenleaf, you start with a natural feeling to serve, and because of this, you try to ensure the highest priority needs of others are being served. Those who “follow” a servant leader (i.e. have a servant leader leading them) will find they grow as people; they “become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants.” This result for followers also becomes the criteria for choosing a leader to follow, if the leader builds up their followers, they are a better leader to follow.

Servant leadership’s goal or focus is the needs of their followers (in servant leadership these are the people the servant leader serves). The servant leader knows that the needs of these people have many dimensions and are unique to each person. So servant leadership is not about serving an undifferentiated mass of others; it comes with an acknowledgement that people are unique and to be valued. Leadership styles often promote the development of followers for the good of organisation performance, where the follower is a means to an organisational end. However, servant leadership is focused on the follower’s development as the end in itself. This brings a change in action for the servant leader from self-centred to other-centred behaviours. Note that “self-centred” does not necessarily mean selfish, instead this self-centredness is about working to advance your ambitions; the other-centred behaviours are where your ambition becomes to advance the goals or agenda of those you serve. This does not mean as a servant leader, you are servile or obsequious; neither does this mean you are deferential to everyone. Your efforts to serve others do not mean you are the one who does the work that no one wants to do. This may be so for a while, but how does this help those you serve become more autonomous? Perhaps doing this work makes others dependent on you and stops you from attaining the primary goal of servant leadership, which is the growth of others?

Notwithstanding this focus of the servant leader on the people they are serving (leading?), the servant leader is also a steward who sees themself as entrusted with an organisation’s resources and seeks to grow these. The servant leader wants sustainable, long-term performance that does not sacrifice people for short-term gains. This stewardship applies to the people you work with as much as the resources you are entrusted with. Here you are interested in the growth of the people in the organisation to become stewards themselves, stewards for the organisation, stewards of their own growth and stewards for the development of their colleagues.

But does this work? Is there any reason to imagine this idea of serving and leading could come together in a way that has any measurable or material outcomes?

Why Servant Leaders?

The research on servant leadership took a while to grow, with very little peer-reviewed work before the mid-1990s and the real growth in research from the mid-naughties. There are now studies from around the world and a multitude of industries.

Pro-social behaviours have been observed in followers of servant leaders. These are the behaviours we should expect to see demonstrated by servant leaders and followers because servant leaders would be enacting these and encouraging followers to do so too. The academic term for this is Organisational Citizenship Behaviour and this is where an employee voluntarily goes beyond what they are contractually obliged to do at work (the opposite of the “it’s not my job” attitude). Followers of servant leaders display these behaviours in many ways, including; collaboration, assuming leadership responsibilities, and being more proactive. As well as these behaviours, followers of servant leaders have a greater engagement at work, job satisfaction, perceive their work as more meaningful, are less cynical about their jobs, are less bored and less likely to be thinking about changing jobs. Followers of servant leaders are also more likely to be willing to take on changes at work and be more committed to the organisation. And it looks like servant leadership supports the psychological basic needs of the followers. (What are these? The stuff from Drive by Dan Pink.) There’s a multitude of goodness that has been demonstrated to be related to servant leadership.

Who cares about the touchy-feely stuff? Does servant leadership mean people produce more stuff? (Am I being ironic? I can’t tell).

Well, yes, there looks to be positive relationships between servant leadership and performance. And this is performance measured at multiple levels. The performance of individual staff members was found to have a significant relationship with servant leadership at a technology company in Canada and for sales staff in Chile. Servant leadership effect on team performance was found to be significant with cosmetic salespeople in South Korea, in team simulations in the USA and Scrum team effectiveness in South Africa (phew, imagine if that were different, it’d be a tough result for the agile world). At the organisational level, performance and servant leadership had a significant relationship in midwestern bank branches in the USA. Servant leadership also has a good relationship with innovation (one example was in a USA production company) or knowledge sharing (an example study on this was in Vietnamese public sector organisations). As well as some other interesting performance relationships including customer performance and customer service quality. This is not an exhaustive list of results for the servant leader and performance relationship. I have only mentioned one or two examples of where the studies were done, and the people involved to give some idea of how diverse the studies of servant leadership have been. Keep in mind that the servant leader is not focused on performance. They focus on the follower, and the performance is a side effect.

Outside of university studies, many companies have adopted servant leadership as part of their company culture practices. TDIndustries in Texas, USA, is one example. The company is a construction and technology company that adopted servant leadership in 1972. In 1997 Fortune magazine rated the company 5th in the top 100 places to work, a result TDIndustries attributed to servant leadership. Over the following ten years, the company is in the 100 best places to work every year, and in 2017, TD Industries was still in the top 100 places to work.

As a final point to throw into this “why,” I want to consider how we structure our work in agile teams and organisations. Some of us may remember the idea of the agile organisation being an inversion of the traditional organisations, where we now put the people who create customer value at the top of the hierarchy. If this is the way we think of the organisations we work in then we need to think about leadership that supports this kind of work. Most leadership styles are top-down, where the leader has followers below them in a hierarchy and this is the opposite of what we are doing in agile. Out of the box, servant leadership provides us with a way of leading in our teams that aligns with how we want our teams to work. Handy that, it’s probably why the Scrum folk adopted it so long ago as a way to describe the Scrum Master role.


I am conducting research on leadership, and I’d love you to take part. I need data from teams to find out how leadership works. If you are interested, click the link below.

Lachlan Heasman recently shared some of his unusual findings in leadership research at AgileAus22 in Melbourne. AgileAus23 is happening in Sydney on 14-15 August 2023. You can find out more and register at


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