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  • Writer's pictureJacqueline Noguera

The Importance of Servant Leadership in Agile Project Management

The concepts of Agile project management have become increasingly essential for successful project execution in recent years, enabling organizations to embrace flexibility, team and stakeholder collaboration, as well as rapid improvement and customer value through the multiple iteration process. Within the agile framework, the role the project manager as the servant leader has emerged as a key philosophy that empowers teams and fosters an environment conducive to success. By prioritizing the needs of the team members and focusing on their professional growth and development, servant leaders play a crucial role in maximizing the benefits of agile project management.

Agile project management is a dynamic approach that emphasizes iterative development, incorporates aspects of Lean methodology to strive for continuous improvement, and adaptive decision-making. It allows teams to respond to changing requirements and customer feedback efficiently. Key characteristics of agile project management include self-organizing teams, close collaboration with product owners and stakeholders, and transparency of objectives and processes. However, to effectively harness the power of agility, a supportive leadership style is essential.

Servant leadership, coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership out of Seton Hall University, in his essay first published in 1970 said, “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.” A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. In empowering self-organizing teams, servant leaders provide guidance and support to their teams while allowing them the autonomy to make decisions and self-organize. This approach promotes collaboration, ownership, and a sense of shared responsibility, resulting in higher levels of motivation and productivity.

In order to foster continuous improvement, servant leaders encourage this by promoting open communication, transparency, embracing feedback, and creating a psychologically safe environment. The ultimate servant leader in agile is the Scrum Master. They support team members in experimenting, learning from failures, and adapting their approach based on new insights, thereby driving innovation and growth. In addition, the PM cum Scrum Master protects the team by removing obstacles to the team’s success. Servant leaders are adept at identifying and eliminating obstacles that impede the progress of the team. They actively engage in removing roadblocks, whether they are organizational barriers or individual challenges. This enables the team to maintain a steady pace, respond swiftly to changes, and deliver value consistently.

An open dialogue is at the center of cultivating trust and collaboration in an agile team. By prioritizing the needs and well-being of team members, servant leaders foster trust and cultivate a collaborative environment that respects diverse perspectives, and again promotes a culture of psychological safety, that has the real eventuality of strong team dynamics, enhanced knowledge sharing, and creative problem-solving.

Servant leaders are deeply invested in the growth and development of their team members. For me personally, I find the moment a team member understands that he or she is safe to be open enough to express any range of ideas, you see that moment in their eyes. It is thrilling and though it may be a little touchy feely it works. My background also includes theatre and film production. When I was initially introduced to agile it was an easy segue, very familiar, akin to working on a production with a tight ensemble cast and crew with the scrum master acting much like the stage manager with some obvious differences. A large part of the servant leader’s job is to also provide resources for mentorship, coaching, and opportunities for skill enhancement, enabling your team to reach their full potential. This emphasis on personal and professional growth contributes to higher job satisfaction, employee retention, and overall team performance.

Servant leadership is an indispensable component of agile project management, as it aligns with the core values and principles of agility. By embracing this type of leadership philosophy, organizations can empower their teams, create an environment of trust and collaboration, and foster continuous improvement. Ultimately, the integration of servant leadership into agile project management enables organizations to unlock the full potential of their teams, encourage better staff retention and achieve greater success in today's dynamic business landscape.

"If you give your team wings on their heels, they will fly."

Christopher Nolan

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