Archive for 2010/01/12

The agile leader – a master or a servant?

I guess Depeche Mode didn’t think about Agile leaders, product owners or software development when they wrote the lyrics for Master & Servant:

There’s a new game

We like to play you see

A game with added reality

You treat me like a dog

Get me down on my knees

We call it master and servant

But when you have titles like “scrum master” and “product owner” you might think that people holding these positions are the masters, trying to squeeze every drop out of the developers.

The example from Ester Derby’s blog about such a manager is probably not that uncommon. A new manager, eager to “cut costs” killed her team in the long run:

People who were confident in finding new jobs left. The people who were afraid they didn’t have the skills to face the job market hung tight. There were rumors of layoffs. Fear lead to people to choose CYA over do the right work the right way. Competition undercut cooperation and collaboration. The VP to an ax to department budgets. The balance sheet looked better (in the short term), but costs went up.

It is always tragic when you here these stories. What we need is leaders who wants more. Leaders who takes pride in the team. Leaders who don’t have to be the master but leaders who can be the master (no, don’t whip your scrum master, I never said that ;-).

When I and Sally Elatta started discussing leadership during an e-mail conversation yesterday, she introduced me to the concept of the Servant Leader. The term was coined in 1970 and described as [cite from wikipedia]

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

The idea is older, for example Chanakya wrote 400 BC. [Cite from Wikipedia]:

“the king [leader] shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects [followers]” “the king [leader] is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.”

We’re pretty far away from The Prince!

The key question for any manager is : Are they there for you or are you there for them?

The servant leader knows that he’s there for the team. The whole scrum idea of removing impediments is based on this idea.

It is therefore so interesting that more agile leadership trainers like Sally Elatta are talking less about certification, the techniques of method A or B, and more about these key character traits of the successful leader. If the introduction of agile methods have revolutionized software development, I believe the introduction of the servant leaders will be an even bigger win. How many “agile” projects fail because of failing management?

Categories: 7 habits, Agile, Leadership, scrum