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The term ‘servant leader’ has its origins in a 1970s essay written by Rober K. Greenleaf. He emphasizes the fact that the servant leader is one who aspires to serve first and lead others to success. This person is contrastingly different from one who is a leader first. 

In this post, we take a look at the top five qualities often seen in a servant leader that can bring stability and calm in today’s fast-paced and turbulent times. Usually, a prerequisite in Agile environments, a servant leader has the responsibility of accelerating the pace of work by removing impediments and coaching the team.

A servant leader is one who is not afraid to be seen as equal to his or her peers. Most importantly, they inspire and motivate people around them to find the best versions of themselves and coach them on not just to say but how to say ‘no.’

Removing obstacles and filling in the cracks to make the team as effective as possible is the simplest definition of describing a servant leader. Here are the top roles and responsibilities a Servant leader must fulfill to be successful.

A servant leader anticipates impediments and finds ways to remove them

One of the core tenets of the Agile mindset is the rapid pivoting in development based on business needs. However, rapid changes may lead to chaos if not managed carefully. A servant leader must be able to see the larger picture of what the business is trying to accomplish but also understand the technical details of how to get to the goal.

Servant leaders need to ask questions and dig more on topics people usually disagree. S/he can predict the lack of resources in the near term and the disconnects it may cause. While the servant leader may not solve the impediment, s/he is responsible for making sure it is being removed. A servant leader must have a high level of maturity to understand risks and work out a mitigation plan with the team to keep these risks at bay.

Advocate the team’s position and keep stakeholders abreast of their status

A servant leader must first and foremost serve. This essentially means that s/he is working for and with the team and must prioritize their interests first. A scrum master that passes the buck down to the team may alienate the team from themselves and eventually sidestepped to a corner that no one cares out. 

Stakeholders are always curious about the team’s status and more importantly if things are getting done. While the team themselves may not be able to show or see the big picture, a servant leader essentially bridges the gap of what the stakeholders want to see and advocate the team’s position on their roadmaps. 

This thinking requires experience in managing expectations and then meeting them along with the ability to be level-headed and data-oriented. 

Building and coaching the team and implementing the right practices

Leadership starts with building the right team for the task. The goal is to build T-shape skilled teams that perform at pace. Coaching the team does not mean conducting a one-off training and then hoping that the team works out the implementation details by themselves. A best practice is not a hygiene factor such as ensuring daily standups and updated backlogs (though a servant leader may also be responsible for this). A servant leader often walks the talk. S/he coaches the team by putting it in practice and setting an example. Coaching is a continuous process for a servant leader. 

A servant leader essentially has the foresight to connect their experience and identify the right practice that best affects the outcome the team is trying to accomplish. They must understand how it relates to the context of the current team, how it would affect performance and the ability of the team to deliver this outcome. 

In its purest form, a servant leader is a teacher. They can impart knowledge and adapt it to a shape that best fits the team dynamics. S/he understands the balances of talent in the team. They help the team with the appropriate direction and encouragement to achieve their full potential.

Manage conflict by being open and honest

Conflict resolution is a vital attribute of any leader and is not restricted to servant leadership alone. The Agile mindset requires that teams be cross-functional and be able to group and disband based on business needs. 

While this is great on paper, in reality, these are human beings, and their dynamics cannot be ignored. As much as we try, our emotions do get the better of us. Our feelings do have an impact on how we work. Recent studies find that people with high emotional quotients are better performers. A servant leader is not one who tries to resolve conflicts based on logic. S/he goes beyond the current context and understands how and why a member of the team behaves the way they do. 

Servant leaders are great at finding the optimal balance in arbitrations. They ensure that no party feels that they are moving ahead at the expense of others.

Encourage transparency and positive metrics

Transparency ensures that everybody in the team commits to a common outcome. Everyone knows who is working on what. A servant leader’s job is to ensure that the team understands the big picture. S/he communicates unequivocally the role they play in it. And, how metrics help them know if what they are doing is any good and adding up to that goal. Transparency builds an environment that fosters greater clarity of thought. 

At the recently concluded Agile2019, John Tanner speaks at length about how wrong metrics become perverse incentives that punish the team, rather than promote growth. These incorrect metrics eventually lead to how people find ways to game the metrics and work their way around them. 

A capable servant leader can easily distinguish between these metrics and how to use them in a way they are useful. For example, sprint velocity is an excellent planning metric but not a good predictor of outcomes. 

Servant leaders understand that being transparent means they can discover surprises faster and solve problems more quickly. Transparency also promotes more authentic relationships between members leading to high performance and high levels of trust in their leadership.

In your experience, what are the other ways a servant leader can make a difference? What are your findings? I’m eager to learn.If you enjoyed reading this post, here are a few more that may interest you,

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