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A Brief History of the Servant Leader

26 August 2014

In this article we will examine how the term "servant leader" came about, how it has evolved over time, and how it can be viewed in the context of Scrum.

Before going into detail about the history of servant leadership, let's set the stage by discussing exactly it means. In my view, "leadership" is the art and science of leading, and "servant leadership" is the philosophy and practice of helping a team thrive in achieving its goals. They are interrelated, if we look them closely. In the world of project management, the Scrum framework clearly defines the ScrumMaster as a servant leader. That said, let's examine the history and relation between the ScrumMaster and the servant leader.  First we will examine the concepts of leadership and later we will look at servant-leader history and its progression.

What is leadership anyway?

There are many definitions of "leader" and "leadership." Writer Kevin Kruse defines it this way: "Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a goal." My personal view, and the most influential definition to me, is, "Leadership is the art and science of leading others to deliberately create a result that wouldn't have happened otherwise."

The reason I like the idea of defining leadership as "the art and science of leading" is because I truly believe, and also many scholars have stated, that leadership has nothing to do with seniority or one's position in the hierarchy, nothing to do with title, and -- most important -- it is not meant to be just management.

The most commonly recognized qualities of leader are honesty, ability to delegate, communication, sense of humor, confidence, commitment, positive attitude, creativity, intuition, ability to inspire, and clear vision. Other qualities we often see cited are self-awareness, self-direction, ability to motivate, and social awareness.

A leader can have one or all of the above qualities, but they can choose to follow different management styles to achieve results. In general, the management styles are broadly defined as:
  1. Autocratic leaders: They make decisions without consulting their team members, even if their input would be useful.
  2. Democratic leaders: They make the final decisions, but they include team members in the decision-making process.
  3. Laissez-faire leaders: They give their team members a lot of freedom in how they do their work and how they set their deadlines.
I won't say those are the only styles, but I would say these are the popular ones.

I hope I've given enough information on leaders and leadership. Let's switch gears now and discuss the servant leader.

The origins of the servant leader

The definition of the servant leader has been well introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf. The concept may have existed before, but he gave it a form and definition that helped make it popular. The idea of the servant as a leader came partly out of his own experience. Greenleaf discusses the "need for a better approach to leadership, one that puts serving others -- including employees, customers, and community -- as the number-one priority. Servant leadership emphasizes increased service to others, a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community, and the sharing of power in decision making."

Greenleaf's characteristics of the servant leader include listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, building community.

The servant leader in Scrum

Though the term "servant leadership" and concept behind it have existed for a long time in the project management world, Scrum has diligently brought it into its framework and pushed it to the next level. If you look into the history of the servant leader role, you would likely agree that its role greatly increased after the introduction of the Scrum framework into the project management world.

In the beginning of this article I mentioned that the ScrumMaster is a servant leader. Just keep that in mind. If one truly believes and understands the soul of leadership and the philosophy behind servant leadership, we can safely say that the ScrumMaster/servant leader is an important and interesting role in Scrum. The ScrumMaster acts as a servant leader who serves the product owner, team, and organization.

How can a ScrumMaster be a true servant leader?

To understand the association, first we need to know some of the responsibilities of the ScrumMaster. They include the following:
  • The ScrumMaster is responsible for making sure that the team lives by the values and practices of the principles of Scrum.
  • He or she does anything possible to help the team perform at its highest level.
  • He is also often viewed as a protector of the team.
  • She removes any impediments to the process and to the team.
  • He facilitates meetings.
  • She coordinates with the product owner and the team.
  • He makes sure that the team doesn't overcommit.
  • She establishes clear communication channels between stakeholders, the team, and the product owner.
  • He helps in reaching goals to deliver a potentially shippable product.
Let;\'s also see some of the key characteristics of the servant leader. They include awareness, listening, persuasion, empathy, healing, and coaching.

If we look into the ScrumMaster responsibilities and characteristics, we can conclude that the ScrumMaster is a servant leader, and this kind of leadership style can only help in achieving better results in Agile environments.

A true leader will deal with the situation and use expert judgment in making decisions. In order to achieve these responsibilities, the ScrumMaster/servant leader should not stick to just one management style or philosophy. I mean to say that, depending on the situation, the ScrumMaster should act as a democratic leader, a laissez-faire leader, and an autocratic leader. The ScrumMaster/servant leader can only achieve all of the responsibilities named above by following different management styles in different situations.

Where the servant leader stands in the pyramid/equilateral triangle

As a picture is worth a thousand words, I thought I'd explain with one. When we talk about a "leader" or "leadership," we often think of a picture that shows the leader on the top of the pyramid, and the several layers represented below him could be characteristics, organizational structure, etc.

In the Scrum world, I see the ScrumMaster/servant leader inside an equilateral triangle, not on top of it.
If you look at the picture, the product owner (stakeholders) is on one side, the team is on another, and the Scrum sprint is on the third. The ScrumMaster/servant leader is inside. It's the ScrumMaster's duty to keep all the sides and proportions equal. In order to achieve this, the ScrumMaster needs to follow all the servant leader principles, guidelines, characteristics, and so on.

The ScrumMaster's ultimate goal is to make sure the Scrum team lives by the values, principles, and practices of Scrum at all times, and the only way he or she can do this is by living inside the boundaries and understanding the philosophy of all the proportions. I believe the servant leader or ScrumMaster is the central energy source and life form that keeps the team motivated and the energy flowing to get equal harmony between the team and PO in all the sprints and throughout the project life cycle.

Throughout this article I have stressed that the ScrumMaster is a servant leader. Another phrase we often hear is, "the ScrumMaster is an Agile coach." Coaching is one of the characteristics of a servant leader. The ScrumMaster needs to help the team and does everything possible to make the team perform at its highest level. To achieve this, the ScrumMaster needs to make sure that there won't be any impediments to reach the goals, that he or she becomes a better communicator and facilitator, that he or she makes sure that the team doesn't overcommit, and that he or she develops good harmony between the product owner and the team.


The philosophy of the servant leader has existed for a long time, and Greenleaf and others have recently popularized it. The Scrum framework has conceptualized this idea well, effectively using the philosophy behind it. As individuals, we must use it effectively to run successful releases and provide potentially shippable products.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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