I’m guessing what I’m about to talk about might ruffle a few feathers, which means I should probably talk out loud about it.  Please don’t be fooled into thinking servant leadership is the best and only leadership style.

If you go to any Agile conference or training (especially on leadership), chances are you will hear the words “servant leadership”.   I certainly have over and over again.  So much that I personally have coached others that servant leadership is ideal.  For that I’m sorry, I failed you.

Let’s examine why I felt duped…

On the surface, I couldn’t argue with the general intent of servant leadership:  Serve the team/people by sharing power and putting the needs of others first with the goal of having the team develop and perform as highly as possible.  What’s not to like about this?  It was additional information that helped me see what wasn’t being said.

My experiences with helping teams grow and develop highlighted that just serving the team by their requests only from day one actually created problems.  Teams are not teams when they are first put together, they don’t often know what to ask for.   How do you successfully serve someone that doesn’t know what they want?  Sure, if the team is high performing, then servant leadership truly further enables their performance.   Now yes, you could struggle through and eventually they will learn and you will get to serve.  However, how is this helping the customer or team satisfaction when it’s just flat out unnecessary pain.  And yes, the more experienced individuals are on new projects, they will get to a team state faster and maybe need servant leadership faster but to say a leader should just serve from day one, is well causing missed opportunities.

So why would anyone want to do that?   Well, what’s opposite of command and control?  Servant Leadership – do nothing unless I ask you, serve me.  Is this the full pendulum swing response to the frustrations with poor leadership for knowledge-based skilled teams?  So many leaders tried to honor this approach, only they questioned their value to the team.  I certainly would.  How am I bringing my knowledge and experience to help the team perform if I am only responding to their requests?  Yes, it places ownership and learning squarely within the team but at what cost?  There is a reason that so many leaders and teams find the “self-organizing or self-managing” teams elusive.  More times than not, they don’t just magically happen.  A leader’s role is important: often from behind the scenes and in a serve the team/people by sharing power and putting the needs of others first with the goal of having the team develop and perform as highly as possible.  But there are other roles/styles the team may need before you can get there and but most importantly, there is so much more that a leader could do for a team beyond servant leadership.

When did this all start lining up in my head?  When I started doing research about various leadership styles as a supporting element of how teams evolve into high performing.  I read about Transformational Leadership, which enhances the motivation, morale, and performance of followers through a variety of mechanisms. These include connecting the follower’s sense of identity and self to the project and the collective identity of the organization; being a role model for followers that inspires them and makes them interested; challenging followers to take greater ownership for their work, and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of followers, so the leader can align followers with tasks that enhance their performance. (source: wikipedia).  After reading and comparing, I personally think of transformational leadership as:  servant leadership that expects the best from everyone including themselves and actively finds opportunities to facilitate grow.  The leader who is behind the curtain but also a safety net to support those going outside of their comfort zone.  This is when I started to understand my successes and my failures as a leader.  This is who I wanted to be as a leader (granted my need for task-oriented details gets the best of me at times!); not just serving but leading and serving.

Seriously, who wouldn’t feel purpose and experience accomplishments if these were traits you and your team would describe you as:

      1. I would never require a follower to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.
      2. I have clear goals for my team.
      3. I find it comes natural to inspire others.
      4. I celebrate the talents and successes of my followers.
      5. I am attentive when it comes to the personal needs of my followers.
      6. I challenge my followers to get out of their comfort zones.
      7. I believe that team work is the way to success.
      8. I encourage my followers to question their most basic way of thinking.
      9. Followers have told me that my enthusiasm and positive energy are infectious
        (Source:  Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D (2009) lists a few traits of a transformational leader to test individuals)

To summarize, I’m not saying there is no value in servant leadership.  I’m saying understand when to be a servant leader and when your team needs something else. And if you really want to lead to the edge, don’t be fooled that servant leadership is the best.  I say be inspired to be a transformational leader.

What leadership style do you aspire to leverage?

Tricia Broderick

Tricia Broderick

Tricia Broderick is a leadership and organizational advisor. Her transformational leadership at all levels of an organization, ignites growth of leaders and high performing teams to deliver quality outcomes. Tricia has more than twenty years of experience in the software development industry. She is a highly-rated trainer, coach, facilitator and motivational keynote speaker. Beyond her extensive knowledge and skills, her biggest offering is inspiring people to believe anything is possible.


  • Debora says:

    It’s hard to find knowledgeable people about this
    topic, however, you seem like you know what you’re talking about!

  • Brian says:

    I’m curious do you think servant leaders can be transformational in the way that they serve?


    • Avatar photo Tricia says:

      Six years later – I am still an advocate of transformational leadership over servant leadership. My thoughts on servant leadership have evolved from what I wrote here (I don’t ever think it is now do nothing but just applied as such). My focus now is more on the pure selfless dynamic of servant leadership that I think is impossible for humans in organizations. Sure don’t be self serving or malicious but I’m still a human with needs too.

      To answer your question, yes. Absolutely. And at the heart of servant leaders is this intent aligned with Greenleaf. I just don’t see that done in practice as often as the goal hoped.


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