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Can Companies Be Servant Leaders?

07/08/2013 by Natalie Warnert

Wikipedia states that servant leadership is both a leadership philosophy and a set of leadership practices. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by someone at the "top of the pyramid." By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

When we refer to servant leadership in Scrum, it is at the team level. A ScrumMaster is the servant leader for the Scrum team. This person does all the steps the definition above refers to and more. This is all great for the Scrum team, but what about everyone else -- the ScrumMaster included? Who is that person's servant leader? Can companies step in and help fill this role?

A company shares power with its employees by empowering them to know what needs to be done and by letting them do it in the way they think is right (within preestablished guardrails, usually). A few examples are company-sponsored groups, the power to design work spaces, and letting employees have flexible working hours and arrangements. I've heard of a concrete example of this type of empowerment from a company during a large project. The teams had to work mandatory Saturdays to deliver on time, but they were allowed to do whatever they needed to get the job done. Catered food was there for them every Saturday, there were free beverages, and employees were allowed to bring their families and the kids played together. There were (and still are) development areas that have fun traditions, including a big cardboard Justin Bieber cutout that gets placed in your cube if you break the build. They have Nerf guns and beanbag games and a ping-pong table. All of this empowers the team to get the job done but have fun doing it. This may not seem like employee empowerment, but it makes them feel appreciated and want to work harder to get the project done.

Putting the needs of others first isn't necessarily what comes to mind when we're thinking of large organizations. But organizations have different ways of putting their employees' needs first. Everyone has heard of Google's free lunches for employees and 3M's "innovation time" every week, but what about other companies? One I've worked for gives shuttle rides in from the parking lots during the winter. They also give out free fruit on Tuesdays and free coffee and tea every day. And of course there are casual Fridays, which may seem like a given -- but I've worked in places where there are never casual Fridays. Some companies have a bank, coffee shop, convenience store, cafeterias, and subway right in their building. Others also have fitness centers and childcare centers.

There are many more examples; the point is that companies do generally try to meet our needs, though they can't ever meet all of them to the extent we'd like them to. Still, even something as simple as promoting exercise time by providing bicycles to use during a break can go a long way.

All of the examples above help people develop and perform. Making people perform as highly as possible is a different story. What is the largest thing hindering performance? In my opinion, it's the infinite processes and bureaucracy and levels of management that make it impossible to get things done. There is not an easy fix, but some people have taken matters into their own hands. In one instance I know of, Macs were needed for some graphic design. The procurement process would have taken at least a month, but the computers were needed immediately. A senior director went to Best Buy and bought them on his corporate credit card instead of waiting for the procurement process. Certainly not everyone has the power and authority to take such action without repercussions, but even from the bottom level, grass-roots efforts can help get things done.

Companies can try to be servant leaders for their employees. Though they don't work exactly like traditional Scrum servant leaders, they can still help their employees want to work to their potential. The biggest thing is to keep teams in mind, remove obstacles, and motivate employees. How exactly to do this can look different from various angles, but in the end there is the same goal: successful projects and happy employees. With good leadership and empowered employees, that goal can be achieved.