To serve or not to serve

there is no question for a leader

Steven A. Martin, PMP

I am often called into organizations to help them address significant business, product, and/or people issues. Regardless of the organization's core issue(s), I regularly find the mindset of leadership at the heart of the dysfunction. A relentless, top-down driven environment with work pushed onto teams is common. This tends to lead to a culture of indifference, lack of accountability and/or innovation, and results not typically aligned with stakeholder needs. With a servant leader approach, where a partnership and coaching stance is used, I generally see much better results, increased morale, and more growth from all parties. Transitioning to a servant leader mindset is a challenging and lengthy journey. Several approaches are discussed.

What's the Problem with the Current Leadership?

As a seasoned consultant focusing on helping organizations transform to operating with more of an agile mindset, I often work with senior leadership (C-levels, executive vice presidents) and management teams (directors, senior managers, direct line managers) to help them clarify “what's the problem.”

The typical responses I receive are along the lines of what Amr Elssamadisy describes in his book, Agile Adoption Patterns: A Roadmap to Organizational Success, as smells, indicators that things are not quite right and organizations are heading in an undesired direction (2008, Chapter 4) (See Exhibit 1).


Exhibit 1: Business and process smells (Elssamadisy, 2008).

At the risk of posing what may be considered a rather broad and potentially controversial opinion, after some root cause analysis, regardless of the smell, one detracting factor often seems to be common across a vast majority of my clients: the leadership.

Many of the managers and teams I work with view their respective leadership as people who manage, not lead. While there is acknowledgement and awareness of “good leadership traits,” actions performed by the leadership often tend to demonstrate what may be considered “traditional top-down” management. Characteristics I regularly observe can include leaders using their position as power over others to:

  • Tell/direct subordinates what to do,
  • Focus on efficiency of individuals and departments,
  • Over-emphasize cost containment (penny wise and pound foolish),
  • Separate teams performing work from their actual customers/clients, removing feedback loops,
  • Require unnecessary documentation with layers of sign-offs,
  • Mandate metrics collection and reporting with little actionable value as proof of progress, and
  • Reduce risk by ensuring conformity across organization with blind application of process for consistency purposes.

With this, teams and management under their respective leaders tend to:

  • Wait to be told what to do and how to do it, which, in turn establishes:
    • Lack of accountability in final solution (“I just built what you told me to”)
    • Limitations in creativity in solutions
    • Culture of fear; no safety net to try things
    • Less satisfied workers (lower morale)
  • Implement tremendous waste in overall process (hierarchies of signoffs, handoffs) leading to:
    • Poor quality
    • Complicated governance processes
    • Increasing time from concept to being in the customers’ hands
  • Focus on individual(s) or department(s), rather than the system. While this may be localizing efficiencies, in actuality, it hurts overall end-to-end delivery (slower, more issues, greater risk).

I would like to propose that a relentless drive from upper levels ultimately leads to the smells listed in Exhibit 1. Even worse, it can permeate the organization, leading to a culture of indifference, lack of innovation, delivering solutions that don't (or no longer) meet customers’ needs, and little incentive or desire to continuously improve. While there are times at which “top-down” driving is necessary, I don't believe this is the best way to get things done over the long term.

Of course the level of distress all depends on the organization and business factors for that industry. And also, let's acknowledge that as a consultant, I am almost always brought into companies when situations range from irritating to just plain, well, I can't mention the phrase that I've heard executives use in the field. So, my perception is likely skewed. Even with this caveat, I still believe that there is enough evidence supporting a large enough kernel of truth to the above problems with leadership that compels us to do something differently.

So, What Needs to Change?

Observing how important leadership (versus management) is first hand, there has to be an approach that emphasizes, as an organization, not only delivering high value products and services to their customers, but also in how they deliver them. The focus in this paper will be on the latter, but not from a “process” point of view, but rather, from a leadership perspective–specifically, having a servant leader mindset.

Before I get into servant leadership, I'd like to step back a moment to see how I arrived at this assertion.

In recent headlines, there is an interesting notion being challenged by several companies regarding the value of management in the first place. Do we even need managers if they are not providing value? Zappos didn't think so, as they radically redesigned the entire organization to remove management (Sweeny & Gosfield, 2014), as well as Morning Star (Hamel, 2011).

Google even started questioning the value of managers–so much so, that they initiated Project Oxygen in 2009 (Garvin, 2013). As presented in Harvard Business Review's article, “How Google Sold its Engineers on Management,” they spent several years extensively performing data collection and analysis regarding management. Google not only concluded management was necessary, but also that great managers exhibited eight traits (see Exhibit 2).


Exhibit 2: Eight traits of a great manager (Garvin, 2013).

Over time, Google implemented a training program that emphasized demonstration and evaluation of leadership skills based upon these eight traits. According to the Harvard Business Review article, “by November 2012, employees had widely adopted the [management] program—and the company had shown statistically significant improvements in multiple areas of managerial effectiveness and performance” (Garvin, 2013).

What is Servant Leadership?

Reflecting upon the Google traits, at least the top six seem to be in alignment with what I would consider as traits of a servant leader.

So what is a servant leader? The concept of servant leadership is certainly not new. The modern view can be taken from Robert Greenleaf's essay, “The Servant as Leader,” where he coins the term “servant leader,” describing it as:

“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” (Greenleaf, 1970).

Peter Economy at Inc. magazine says it a little more succinctly with, “the idea of servant leadership is that the typical hierarchy where employees are supposed to serve their bosses is turned upside down. Instead, leaders serve their people” (2015).

On the surface, there seems to be obvious benefits for servant leadership. Mr. Economy states, “by serving your employees, you can build a happier, more-productive business with a better bottom line” (2015).

Providing some more quantitative perspective to the benefits of servant leadership, studies have shown, “when the practices of servant leadership are implemented through leadership training in a business, performance has improved by 15 - 20% and work group productivity by 20 – 50%. Fortune magazine's annual rankings of the best 100 corporations to work for show that companies that practice servant leadership consistently rank within the top 10 (e.g., Southwest Airlines, Synovus Financial Corporation, TD Industries, and Container Stores)” (Wong & Davey, 2007).

Heskett (2013) further discusses work by a group of organizational psychologists led by Adam Grant to impacts on the servant leaders themselves, not just on those that they lead. Grant asserts that, “servant leaders are not only more highly regarded than others by their employees and not only feel better about themselves at the end of the day, but are more productive as well.” [Grant's] thesis is that “servant leaders are the beneficiaries of important contacts, information, and insights that make them more effective and productive in what they do even though they spend a great deal of their time sharing what they learn and helping others through such things as career counseling, suggesting contacts, and recommending new ways of doing things.”

Characteristics of Servant Leaders

There are many opinions on the characteristics of servant leaders. Mr. Economy (2015) nicely summarizes the work of S. Chris Edmonds from his book, The Culture Engine, that servant leaders believe:

  1. Every person has value and deserves civility, trust, and respect
  2. People can accomplish much when inspired by a purpose beyond themselves

Tangentially, this reminds me of Daniel Pink's writings in his book, Drive, where motivation is not based upon money (and notion of carrots and sticks), but instead on autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose (2011). Based upon my coaching and mentoring of leaders, there are several characteristics of those that possess a servant leader mindset, as described in Exhibit 3.


Exhibit 3: Proposed characteristics of servant leaders.

You'll notice that I didn't say a “Manager” or “Senior Leader” needs these characteristics. I observe very frequently, members on teams that have informal power, those that clearly influence others and get things completed without formal authority. I assert that you don't need to have a leadership title to be a servant leader.

There is some caution that should probably be mentioned. In line with “too much of a good thing,” being a servant leader does not mean that you always do what your staff or others want you to do. That's not what servant leadership is about. As leaders, there are things that need to be done, and these things may not be “wants.” This is the paradox and challenge of being a servant leader: What's the appropriate balance?

How Can You Transition to Being a Servant Leader?

While there is no clear-cut way to becoming a servant leader, in general, I'd suggest following these four steps, each of which will be explained further.

  1. Make the commitment that you want to be a leader.
  2. Understand yourself. Learn patterns of how and why you react the way you do.
  3. Understand others. Identify patterns of others, learning how and why they react the way they do.
  4. Incrementally demonstrate the characteristics of a servant leader.

1. Do You Really Want to be a Leader?

From my experience, there seems to be a high percentage of people who were fantastic individual performers that were rewarded by being promoted to a management position. However, they are not exactly what I would deem as models of being a good leader.

When I was first promoted to a leadership role, I made all the classic blunders of a novice “leader.” I assigned. I tracked to needless detail. I checked up on my staff's solutions to see if they were “worthy.” I even looked at timecards. This is what I thought I was supposed to do. I'm surprised I didn't lose more of my staff than I did. Looking back, I wouldn't want to work for me.

You'll need to make the conscious decision that you want to go through the journey to become a leader. This seems rather obvious, but it really isn't. Assuming you want to move forward to become a leader, and in particular, a servant leader, you will likely need to change.

Hessler (2010) describes in his book, Land On Your Feet, Not Your Face, prospective leaders have to “make the leadership choice,” and in doing so, “you may need to leave behind some old competencies.” You need to be OK with public failure and be willing to “make the leap [to leadership] without certainty of actually getting there.” If you're doing the transition to leadership for reasons such as power, money, or respect/admiration from others, you may be in it for the wrong goals; servant leaders have core motives beyond these.

2. Understand Yourself

My belief is the more you know about yourself, the better equipped you are to help and serve others. One of the quickest ways I found to start this journey is to take a self-assessment. Used correctly and answering the questions honestly, it can provide you with insight into yourself; more specifically, into the hows and whys of your behavior.

There are many different personality/leadership assessments available. I'd suggest using a reputable tool grounded in science, where results have a high correlation between indicated and observed behaviors. Exhibit 4 lists just a few of the assessments I've used before.

Note: This is not a paper on assessments nor an endorsement of any particular instrument. Rather, this is a brief listing of the tools as a possible place for you to get started on researching what may work for you and your situation. Simply perform a search on your favorite browser to find a range of assessments and/or providers. Costs can range from free to paid services.


Exhibit 4: Examples of self-assessments.

As an example of how I've used just one of these assessments, I'd like to mention a few things about the DISC assessment, which shows your predisposition for “how” you react in four spectrums:

  • Dominance – Focus on resolving problems and challenges, sometimes quickly and bluntly.
  • Influence – Emphasis on people, getting to know people.
  • Steadiness – Focus on pace, ensuring consistency and calmness.
  • Conscientiousness – Emphasis on procedure, quality, accuracy, and constraints.

We all possess a combination of 4 characteristics to some degree, but often one (or two) rise up to the top as most prevalent. By having awareness of how you tend to react to situations, you can better “head off’ any of your own unnecessary behaviors that tend to clash with the servant leader characteristics before they escalate too high.

Furthermore, under DISC, we display these characteristics based on two different states:

  • Your primary style–this tends to be who you are at your core and does not shift much over time.
  • Your adjusted/adapted style–how you've changed to your environment.

If you happen to have a delta of 20% or more points in any one of the four characteristics from your adapted to primary state, it indicates that you are likely to display signs of stress; it's challenging for folks to “swing” that much and still possess the skills necessary to more effectively demonstrate servant leader behaviors. For example, if you have a low Dominance score as your primary style and your adapted style is high Dominance, there's an awful lot of extra energy and strain to maintain a high Dominance style.

After taking the self-assessment, give yourself permission to increase your own awareness in how you behave toward certain situations. Learn your patterns for how you react and how it manifests in the combinations of the four characteristics above. This will be a building block before you apply it to others (as described in the next section).

There are a few words of caution regarding self-assessments:

  • Self-assessments are based upon your perception of yourself. Most assessments can be gamed. You need to answer questions honestly, not for what you want to be, but for where you are.
    • A “360 degree” tool may provide a wider view into you (and possibly identify some blind spots) by asking subordinates, peers, and those above you to provide feedback. However, 360s require a bit of effort, coordination, and reliance on a third party to gather and present information back to you.
  • Assessments should never be used for hiring or continued employment decisions.
  • Better results come when there is voluntary participation versus coercion.
  • It is more essential to have the openness and self-awareness to take the time to read through the outputs and do something with the feedback from the assessment.
  • The example above is just one type of assessment; there are different assessments out there that identify “how” people react. You'll need to find the instrument that resonates with you the most.

3. Understand Others

Once you recognize your patterns of the hows and whys you react to situations, you can more easily identify patterns to others around you. Understanding others will tend to help you exhibit servant leader characteristics, such as listening, communicating, negotiating, and facilitating.

Carrying the DISC example started above to the next level, let's assume that you have a high Dominance style and you are paired with someone having a high Steadiness style. Your tendency to want to get things done quickly and decisively will likely clash with their need for patience and predictability. In this situation, as a servant leader, you need to pull back and coach toward what they may perceive to be a reasonable pace, so they can learn and grow. (Of course, there are times where you need to mentor versus coach, as the situation dictates). In other words, you are adjusting your behaviors to theirs, in recognition of how your behaviors may cloud or impact your perception of others.

Expanding this to a group example, let's say your team has an over-abundance of folks that are high Steadiness and high Conscientiousness, low in Dominance and Influence. In my experience, this is a common profile of a software development team. There is potential that the group may tend to:

  • Want to work alone. With low Influence, they may be introverted. This can make it more challenging for collaboration, communication, and coaching.
  • Get stuck in “analysis paralysis.” With low Dominance in combination with high Conscientiousness, wanting perfect, high quality, well-thought-out analysis before taking any action.
  • Have an “outsider” that doesn't fit in, which causes stress on the team. For example, if you have one person that is high Dominance or high Influence, they may be in conflict with the rest of the group. Eventually, this may make others automatically discount any input from that person, potentially missing some fantastic insight or opportunity for innovation.

These are just hypothetical examples of how to apply the knowledge beyond the self to the group. As a servant leader, being aware of the dynamics of others and the group ultimately helps you help them navigate through their waters much easier.

4. Incrementally Demonstrate Servant Leadership Behaviors

Becoming a servant leader is much like an endurance sport–it happens intensely over a long period of time. Give yourself permission to take the time needed to learn, reflect, and grow. Some leadership programs I advise (and have participated in), take a year or so on purpose. When I've observed others try to go too quickly, not only do they, themselves, have personal difficulty with the pace of adjustment (it can be overwhelming), but the people around them tend to have a hard time trying to “figure you out.”

Since this is a journey, you need to plan part of your day to account for this purpose. This is a “task” that takes time out of each day, just like anything else on your plate. You'll need the quiet moments of introspection and reflection, along with action to start to make your change. Avoid trying to layer this on top of what you already have. Incrementally shift what you have on your plate. Do this by first considering what you can give up, then putting plans in place to transition these activities or simply phase them out if there is little or no added value.

Be transparent about your own journey. Let others know that you are trying to change in an effort to help them and the overall organization so that we all can deliver amazing products/services for our clients–so, it's a journey for you, as well as them.

Practice servant leader behaviors on solving real problems—not ones you think are important, but ones that are important to the team(s). Being a servant leader means seeing things and helping from their point of view. But, most importantly, for anything that you say you're going to do, especially when helping resolve real problems, you need to deliver on your promise, as this will build greater trust over time. If you're going to miss it or are having difficulty, be open and transparent with your team(s).

Ask for feedback regularly, and, in particular, when you perceive things are not going well. Getting feedback, particularly unpleasant criticism, can be awkward or disappointing. However, some of my best learning has been from failure and mistakes, even though they weren't fun experiences at the time. The key, though, when you do get the feedback, is to do something with it. Don't just ask for feedback then don't change or act on it; soon, you won't get any feedback at all.

From an education and training perspective, some companies generously offer internal leadership training seminars or funding to take a class outside the organization. If this isn't an option, you'll need to get a little more creative. Consider professional societies such as Project Management Institute, Strategic Management Society, etc. I have found many videos and white papers by experts in the field with simple browser searches. You may also opt for a more formal education or certificate from a university or education body. The bottom line is you need to put work into learning on your own.

What's Holding us Back from Becoming Servant Leaders?

There could be two perspectives to consider on why servant leadership isn't more pervasive in organizations: from internal influences (from the self) and external influences (beyond the self).

Some internal (self) influence that may be holding us back could include:

  • You're just not ready yet to perform the self-reflection needed to become a servant leader. From your perspective, things are OK; it's everyone else's problem, not mine. You've been doing “this” for years, and you've already found the best practices. There is no more to learn. If you have any of these thoughts, seriously think long and hard about whether you're really ready to become a servant leader.
  • You don't have the time to invest in your own transition.
  • You don't have resources to help you with your learnings.
  • You are not comfortable asking for feedback.
  • You don't want to be in a leadership role in the first place; you would rather be an expert in your particular field.

Some external reasons (beyond the self) could include:

  • Culture of companies, annual assessments, and raises and/or bonuses based upon annual reviews. I'm a firm believer in incremental feedback over the course of the year, versus big bang annual reviews, which, in my opinion, are often too late and not actionable. The annual review and compensation adjustment for employees is a one-two punch that tends to lead to a culture of individual performers vs teams or “we.”
  • There may be a perception that servant leadership is “being the nice person,” not being seen as a strong leader–challenging what is meant to be a strong leader. I happen to think a servant leader is stronger, as it takes influence and “soft skills,” over telling folks to just do something.
  • Servant Leaders could be viewed as non-value added and/or overhead. Why pay someone to influence and guide when you can hire someone else to just do it?
  • Publically traded companies may not be ready for potential backlash of perception of “not having anyone in charge.”

Final Words from Experiences/Observations in the Field

Servant leadership seems to be more of an individual characteristic versus an organization characteristic. Within the same company, I've seen individuals (at both team and management levels) that possess desired characteristics and some that don't. In an unscientific manner, I see about one-fourth (25%) of managers exhibit characteristics of servant leaders. A good portion of these people I see with these characteristics are at the team level–they want to help their team members do well, so the whole team succeeds.

I've not quite yet observed a “servant leader culture” at any company. In informal interviews with several colleagues (includes other agile transformation coaches, as well as executive coaches), they haven't seen this either, across any organization. Again, there could be bias here in that the opinions represented are of consultants who are called into rather adverse situations.

Obviously, it is a rather extreme and bold move for organizations to transition to a servant leader mindset. Because of that, I think most organizations tend to handle incremental change better.

Economy, P. (2015, January 26). 7 secrets of servant leadership that will lead you to success. Inc. Magazine. Retrieved from

Elssamadisy, A. (2008). Agile adoption patterns: A roadmap to organizational success. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Garvin, D. A. (2013, December). How Google sold its engineers on management. Harvard Business Review.

Greenleaf, R. (1970). The servant as a leader. Retrieved from, G. (2011, December). First, let's fire all the managers. Harvard Business Review.

Heskett, J. (2013, May). Why isn't servant leadership more prevalent? Forbes. Retrieved from

Hessler, J. and Montenko, S. (2010). Plank 1. Make the Leadership Choice. In Land on your feet, not on your face: A guide to building your leadership platform (pp. 11–27). Seattle, WA: Bennett & Hastings Publishing.

Pink, D. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Sweeney, C. and Gosfield, J. (2014, January 6). No managers required: How Zappos ditched the old corporate structure for something new. Fast Company. Retrieved from

Wong, P, T. P.,& Davey, D. (2007, July). Best practices in servant leadership. Servant Leadership Research Roundtable, Regent University.

© 2015, Steven A. Martin
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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