Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
November 22, 2022 · 10 min read

What is servant leadership? How to empower your Agile team

What is servant leadership?

People don’t leave bad jobs - they leave bad managers.

Unfortunately, 77% of organizations say that they lack great leadership. So, it only makes sense that to keep your team together and happy (and avoid project failure), you need to level up your leadership game.

That’s where servant leadership comes in.

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy that focuses on empowering and supporting team members. Rather than ruling by dictatorship, servant leaders do everything they can to help their team do their best work.

And the results are clear. Data shows that teams led by servant leaders drive 6% higher performance, 8% better customer service, and 50% better employee retention.

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So, what does it mean to be a servant leader? And how can you shift your management style to embrace servant leadership? In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know and arm you with the skills needed to become a successful servant of your team.

What is servant leadership? How is it unique?

Servant leadership is a style of leadership focused solely on the needs of the team. Rather than concentrating on the wider company objectives, servant leaders dedicate themselves to supporting, developing, and growing the people in their teams.

On the face of it, servant leadership might seem like a backward concept for the business world. But if you consider how servant leaders focus their energy on producing skilled, motivated, and more productive employees, it’s easy to see how it can drive commercial success.

For project professionals, servant leadership’s popularity has coincided with the rise of Agile project management. Agile teams self-organize and have greater autonomy over their work — but this can only happen if their managers and leaders support their choices, rather than force decisions and tasks on them.

But greater autonomy and support isn’t the only difference between traditional and servant leadership.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of how servant leadership differs from traditional leadership:

🚀 Servant leaders: 🦖 “Traditional” leaders:
Focus on the needs of the team they serve. Focus on the needs and objectives of the organization.
Ensure teams are growing their knowledge, skills, and experience. Ensure teams deliver company objectives, targets, and milestones.
Measure success through growth and development. Measure success through outputs alone.
Use persuasion to guide their teams toward the best result. Rely on authority to demand team members complete tasks.
Empower teams to make decisions via consensus and democracy. Make decisions for the team through authority and control.
Share power and control to boost engagement and team motivation. Use power and control to drive team performance.
Put their teams first and practice listening and empathy. Focus on their own careers and hitting goals at any cost.
Understand that the work/project is not all about them. Believe the success of the work/project is all about them.

Why is servant leadership so important for Agile teams?

Since the early 2000s, Agile project management has become the most popular way to deliver projects — especially in the tech world. But a true Agile transformation isn’t just adapting a different project framework; it’s a complete mindset shift.

The concept of self-organizing teams is a big part of what makes Agile so great. For agility to truly work, teams need to work collaboratively, be empowered to make their own decisions, and have the autonomy to deliver work at a regular pace.

Why is servant leadership so important for Agile teams?
Source: Pinterest

Servant leaders are an essential part of making Agile project management work. In an Agile world, servant leaders:

Notice there’s no mention of traditional management techniques here. There’s no action tracking, timeline monitoring, or chasings deadlines. Instead, it’s all about putting the needs of the team first to maximize their performance.

7 main benefits of servant leadership

Get servant leadership right, and you’ll see several benefits, including:

  1. Stronger collaboration. Teams with servant leaders consistently engage in richer, more frequent interactions that increase the chances of success.
  2. Better team dynamics. Servant leadership boosts team togetherness and resilience, making it easier to stay motivated when times get tough.
  3. A more capable team. Agile teams that practice servant leadership learn, grow, and develop together as a collective rather than individuals.
  4. More creativity. More capable teams drive innovation, helping your organization to regularly think outside the box and stand out from the crowd.
  5. Greater agility. An empowered team can react to changes faster and stay ahead of the competition.
  6. Stronger employee commitment. Servant leaders create trust and well-being that leads to longer retention and less absenteeism.
  7. A more customer-focused organization. By practicing servant leadership, your team is able to step back and deliver the right solution at the right time.
In the modern-day world of Agile project management, dictatorships simply don’t work.

The 11 essential skills and principles of servant leadership

While the basics of servant leadership are pretty straightforward (i.e., shift your focus from outputs to team empowerment), it can be confusing to always know how to put this into practice.

To start, every great servant leader needs to embrace these 11 essential skills.

1. Become a better listener

Why it’s important: As a servant leader, your priority is your team. To understand how to best support them, you must constantly listen to them. Active listening is the only way you’ll understand what’s causing problems, what’s blocking work, and what your team needs from you to grow, progress, and deliver.

The stats: According to research, 86% of execs, employees, and educators blame ineffective communication for most failures in the workplace.

*How to become a better listener: *While we all know how to listen, the key is to create more opportunities to gain valuable insights — both formal and informal.

Formally, facilitating sessions such as daily stand-ups, team meetings, or one-to-one’s creates opportunities to get the team talking. Informally, you can engage in regular chats or keep an ear out for day-to-day issues and frustration.

Listening doesn’t have to be difficult — you just need to make it a more prominent part of your project management skillset.

2. Develop your emotional intelligence

Develop your emotional intelligence

Why it’s important: If you take a people-focused approach, you need to learn to empathize with a range of different personalities. Understanding your team members emotionally won’t just help you serve them better, it will also help you identify how to get the best out of them day-to-day.

The stats: Emotional intelligence has been recognized as a key skill for project leaders for decades. In one study from the Project Management Institute, 90% of respondents believed that emotional intelligence was an essential attribute for project managers.

How to develop your emotional intelligence: Those who are emotionally intelligent excel in being empathetic and patient. As a servant leader, make time for your team members, ask them how they’re feeling, and try to see the world through their eyes. Tailor the way you do this for each individual, though, as everyone likes to be engaged differently.

3. Become more self-aware

Why it’s important: Servant leaders have to know when to step in and fix problems and when to step back and give the team room. While you want to be there to support, you don’t want to get in the way inadvertently.

The stats: Data from The Harvard Business Review found that although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10–15% actually are. This proves you can’t always trust your own instincts, so regularly ask your team for feedback.

How to become more self aware: Self-awareness is a hard thing to learn, but you can put some steps in place to get feedback from your team. Ask open-ended questions such as ‘what do you need help with?’, ‘how can I better serve you?’, or ‘would you rather I did this?

The goal is to quiet your inner ego and learn to recognize where you might be holding your team back.

4. Master the art of conflict resolution

Why it’s important: Even the best and most functional teams have issues — that’s just a feature of working life. As the team leader, you need to be there to work through it in a constructive way that leads to positive outcomes rather than long-term damage.

The stats: 85% of employees experience some kind of conflict in their working lives. As a leader, your job is to embrace conflict and use it to create positive outcomes that drive your project forward.

How to master conflict resolution: As a servant leader you have to give conflict the opportunity to play out and work itself to an amicable solution.

During conflict resolution, your role is to ensure both sides listen to each other, debate the arguments, and as a team, come to an agreeable way forward. Your role as a servant isn’t to make the final decision here, it’s to guide the team to find the best solution for themselves.

5. Be a team protector

Why it’s important: Especially in an Agile world, your team can be dragged from pillar to post as priorities change. As a leader, your job is to protect them by creating a calm and stable environment for them to operate effectively.

The stats: According to studies, 86% of teams attribute company failures to poor communication.

How to protect your team: Poor communication isn’t just under-communicating, but over-communicating too. As a leader, you need to keep the external voice to a minimum to enable your team to thrive.

Keep noise away from the team by working as the main point of contact with external stakeholders to filter out non-value-adding inputs. On the flip side, when valuable information comes your way, make sure you communicate it to the team quickly and effectively.

6. Rally your team around a core vision and mission

Why it’s important: As a servant leader, it’s still your role to ensure your team is working towards a clear and meaningful product strategy. In a servant approach, your role is to facilitate the co-creation of this strategy rather than simply stating it outright.

The stats: 61% of people say their companies often struggle to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and its day-to-day implementation.

How to give your team a shared vision: As a servant leader, it’s your job to continually coach your team to achieve their visions, missions, and strategies.

To begin, you need to build your vision together. Share Agile boards, roadmaps and strategy docs that clearly show how their day-to-day work impacts the larger company vision. This way, everyone is motivated to keep working and can see the impact of their day-to-day tasks.

Roadmap view of Sprint with time left

7. Provide resources in both tools and support

Why it’s important: Servant leaders must ensure their teams have what they need at all times. This isn't just your support, however. You need to be able to spot when other resources, such as tools or expertise, are needed to keep things moving, too.

The stats: An increasing number of project leaders (60%) believe resource management is a significant problem. To overcome this, identify resource gaps early and put plans in place to close them.

How to provide your team the resources they need: First and foremost, this comes down to listening to the team and taking the time to understand their pain points.

Then, it’s your job to step back, see the bigger picture, and identify ways to improve the team’s effectiveness. This is especially important when it comes to teams that are managing busy workloads.

8. Use persuasion (not direction)

Why it’s important: When managing in a servant-style, your job isn’t to make decisions, it’s to provide the right information for the team to make them. For that reason, your role is all about persuading rather than directing, so it pays to master the art of persuasion.

The stats: Instead of relying purely on logic, the world’s greatest leaders use 2.9x more appeals to emotion and 3.4x more appeals to intuition.

How to practice the art of persuasion: The key to persuasion is building great arguments. Data-driven decisions are best here, so invest in understanding your team’s performance metrics, such as their burndown and velocity.

This way, you can frame decisions against the team’s best interest, allowing you to coach and persuade the team towards the right outcome.

9. Practice the art of foresight

Practice the art of foresight

Why it’s important: Servant leaders always have their team’s best interests at heart. While that means serving them day-to-day, it also means looking ahead and anticipating challenges on the horizon.

The stats: 93% of organizations use standardized project analysis practices to reduce risk in their project teams.

How to get better at seeing the future: There is a range of great project management techniques available to you here, including SWOT and PESTLE analysis. These techniques help leaders assess their external environment and identify threats and opportunities for their teams.

10. Focus on team development

Why it’s important: Servant leaders must focus on growing the individuals to ultimately grow the team. Sometimes that means taking a holistic look at an individual team member, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, and investing time into growing their skills, knowledge, and experience.

The stats: 74% of surveyed employees feel they aren’t reaching their full potential at work due to a lack of development time and opportunities.

How to help your team develop their skills: This is where leadership crosses into traditional line management with the creation of a personal development plan.

Servant leaders should encourage their teams to focus on their individual growth and support them in having the opportunities to focus on their development.

People don’t leave bad jobs - they leave bad managers.

11. Work to continuously improve yourself

Why it’s important: The very best servant leaders are always looking to grow and develop themselves. No leader is perfect. So, make sure you invest in developing your leadership style and practice what you preach.

The stats: Studies show that participants undergoing leadership training improved their own performance by 20%.

How to become a better leader: This comes down to a combination of things we’ve covered. Continually look for feedback from the team on what’s working and what isn’t working, create your own personal development plan, and ensure you have the right resources available to do the best job.

Where project managers go wrong: 4 risks of servant leadership

Here are some of the biggest risks to look out for that often catch out even the best-intentioned project leaders:

  1. It can be hard to truly master servant leadership in a traditional environment. If you want to make the switch, ensure your wider business stakeholders are on board and support the transition too.
  2. Not all team members like being led by a servant style, and in some instances, it can cause them to become demotivated. In these situations, team productivity may actually reduce, so keep an eye on those productivity metrics.
  3. Servant leadership decreases your authority as a manager and leader. If you’re comfortable with this, then it could be a good approach for you. But, if your project needs strong authority, it may not be the right approach to take.
  4. The servant leadership style requires a high level of situational and emotional awareness. These are skills that, even when practiced, don’t come naturally to some people. If that’s you, and you’d rather rely on structure and authority, servant leadership may not be for you.

How to start your servant leadership journey today

Servant leaders make better teams. But where do you start?

If you’re interested in switching your leadership style, here are three steps you can take today to get started on your servant leadership journey:

Educate yourself

Servant leaders are always learning more about how to improve their skills. To start, read about the origins of servant leaders from the man who brought the term to the business world — Robert K. Greenleaf.

Prepare for the shift

There are so many skills, principles, and tools that can help you become a great servant leader. But one of the most important skills you can develop early on is communication.

A project management tool like Planio can help empower you to communicate with your team and share knowledge.

Planio Wiki overview for knowledge management

For example, Planio wikis can be used as a central knowledge management tool — ensuring your entire team has access to the information and resources they need to do their best work.

Practice trial and error

Like all things in project management, sometimes the best way to get started is simply to give it a go. As you start adopting a servant leader mindset, you’ll find what works for you and your teams, and what needs tweaking going forward. Remember that this is a journey where you’ll learn and improve as you go!

Servant leaders are key to agile success

In the modern-day world of Agile project management, dictatorships simply don’t work.

Instead, agile teams expect their leaders to serve and empower them rather than direct and control them.

Making the switch to servant leadership isn’t easy. But, if you can adopt the key skills and principles, while avoiding the common pitfalls, you can transform your leadership style for the better.

Ultimately, it’s all about helping your team be the best they can be — if you do that, you’ll be well on your way to project success.