December 7, 2015 Focus area: Scaling Agile

Mismatch: Servant Leadership & Agile Transformation

What is the right type of leadership, transforming to Agile? Start with a strong traditional leader.

‘Servant leadership’ is one of those magic Agile answers to all kind of questions raised by managers, trying to help out in the storm of becoming an Agile company. But let’s face it: you’ve been working in a top-down managed organization, fighting to meet project deadlines for years now. Adding a servant-flavor to your managerial skills won’t do the trick in becoming Agile. If you truly want to have impact on the current way of working and to fuel the adoption of Agile principles, please read on.

By the way, I assume that a) you are familiar with Agile, b) you understand how hard it is to reach the state of an Agile mindset, and c) are interested in how to make a positive impact in this respect.

Robert Greenleaf published "The Servant as Leader" in 1970. Greenleaf re-invented this ancient Chinese concept by creating a new style of management leadership: servant leadership. To go short, servant leadership promotes participation. It looks for ways to help, to serve and to unleash the potential of subordinates.

On the other end of the spectrum we find the authoritarian style that focuses on tangible end-results and favors carrot-and-stick-instruments. We’ve left scientific management behind us, that Charlie Chaplin so nicely conveys in “Modern Times” (1936). But still we experience traces of Taylors “The Principles of Scientific Management” (1909) in our management. Placed in a modern jacket, I call this type of manager a leading servant.

Back again to the Agile transformation. Is servant leadership necessary in becoming Agile? Based on years of experience, I believe it’s not. This concept does not provide the strength and guidance for a traditional company, willing to make a change. I am going to be controversial here. Turning around a classic company into a state of adopting and practicing Agile principles, demands strong scientific management. What you need is a leading servant.

Agile Leading Servant and Servant Leadership Andres Jansen

To create an Agile breakthrough, it’s necessary to brake with old patterns. And doing so, will always cause a certain level of resistance. Even towards changes for the better. Who will help us to leave old ways of working on a company level? How to gain enough flow in our company to overcome the Kübler-Ross phases of grief: shock, denial and anger? The leading servant! Traditional leaders speak the language we all understand. They must stand up and clearly define ambitious end-results of this transformation-project. Like it or not, they are the ones that will get us in motion. It’s for the better, so welcome them. And their carrots and sticks.

Is than all that advice about servant leadership misplaced? Not completely. Servant leadership is a prerequisite for staying Agile. It’s needed to continuously polish our Agile mindset and behavior. So, once the Agile train starts running, please do welcome servant leaders. And at a certain point of time, servant leaders will inspire us to stand up. We will thank our leading servant for his services, help him to pack his carrots and sticks, and friendly walk him out.