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Questioning Servant Leadership

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Is the role of an agile manager only that of servant leader? Should they ever use traditional command and control tools? Should the agile manager ever wield authority and make demands of the team? Should they ever make changes in the membership? This has recently been the topic of discussion on the Lean Agile Scrum mailing list.

Peter Alfvin describes a "servant leader" as:

  • Is typically operating from a position of traditional power, not from a position of suboordination
  • Consistently responds to the needs of the organizaiton being served, as opposed to the wants of the individuals
  • Favors collaboration because of its effectiveness, but will use confrontation or any other technique as appropriate to the situation

Wikipedia describes the role as: Servant-leadership emphasizes the leader's role as steward of the resources (human, financial and otherwise) provided by the organization. It encourages leaders to serve others while staying focused on achieving results in line with the organization's values and integrity.

Scott Delware says that:

I don't like wielding swords when I'm a team leader on a software team, but I haven't really figured out yet how to never need to swing a sword and still intercede when team members pathologically do not meet expectations set by leadership and management, and pathologically take risky liberties.  ... The problem with wielding a sword is that it's hard to be seen as other than a sword wield once the sword has been wielded

Steven "Doc" List counters:

I don't think a team lead should be a manager, nor vice versa.  This is consistent with my understanding of TPS - Team Leads are not in management, have no personnel responsibilities, and are there to help the teams do their best.
So the coach/team lead should/could be the charismatic prophet who guides, teaches, and leads the team to higher and higher levels of competence and accomplishment.

The manager should be responsible for personnel issues, moving staff around, hiring and firing.

Mary Poppendieck notes that she has never liked the term "servant leader" saying that doesn't describe what she has seen in successful managers. Instead she sees a manager's job as bringing out the best in people and helping them be part of the team. She goes on to say:

In my experience, it is the leader’s (manager’s) job to intervene in the case of inappropriate behavior, and when he or she does, the rest of the team will be grateful for the intervention.  This is not wielding a sword as opposed to being a servant.  It is being a “servant” (if that’s what you want to call it) to the whole team by suppressing the individual behavior that will keep the team from being successful.

It’s not about telling people what they are doing wrong.  It’s about constantly steering everyone on the team in the direction of success, and never letting any individual compromise the progress of the team toward success.

On the role of coaches Mary warns in cases where the group has both a manager and a coach that the manager often gets pushed off to the side while the coach takes centre stage. When the coach leaves the team reverts to its old behaviors. For the changes to stick to for the team to continue improve she believes that the manager must learn how to coach.

Tom Stephen shares his experience in how military command and control work:

the most effective fighting (successful) force is the one where small unit leaders make local decisions.  They are closest to the fighting and therefore need the flexibility to make on-the-spot decisions based on the circumstances.  ... This doesn't mean that senior leadership leaves it all to the small unit commanders.  Their job is to set the objectives, remove obstacles, and very importantly lead by example.  Let the leaders on the ground figure out how to best execute.

In addition Tom notes that the junior people (lowest ranking) are usually asked for their ideas first so that their ideas are incorporated before senior people set the tone.

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