Servant Leadership for traditional managers

When teams, product development and entire organizations move from traditional processes to Agile, we as Managers, have to be prepared for it. It’s a new world were teams are self-organizing, the project has no deadlines, and we as managers are no longer Kings on the Mountaintop.

Leadership and autonomous teams are the buzz-words of today so we as managers have to go through our own agile transformation in order to survive.

At the Agile ME 2020 on March 11th I was supposed to make a workshop, together with Wajih Aslam where we through debate, learning and fun exercises wanted to discover this new path of servant leadership together with the attendees – unfortunately due to COVID-19 restrictions I had to cancel last minute, and Wajih will facilitate the workshop by himself – with a few changes. Therefore, this blogpost with a description of the intended workshop and the expected learnings.

What is leadership?

In the beginning of a previous Meetup in Dubai I asked the attendees if they wanted to see a magic trick – and let’s be honest. Who doesn’t love a good magic trick! Everyone quickly gathered around the table where I was standing, when I then said:

“Guys, I actually think this will be much better if the table is in the middle of the room”

With no further ado a few guys grabbed the table and quickly moved it to the middle of the room. And there you got it – my magic trick!

So, what basically happened was that I identified a goal or a vision. Some of the attendees identified a solution and delivered, simply because they believed in me and the goal.

What we can learn from this simple trick is that everyone can be a leader at the right time and place. Natural leaders, formal leaders or as in this case a random guy making Meetup attendees believe he want to show a magic trick.

Leadership is all about being visionary, inspiring and setting expectations, and if you follow through your team will believe in you and follow you. Ideally not because they are payed to, but because of who you are and what you represent.

I will encourage you to read more about John C Maxwell’s 5 levels of leadership:

Management vs. servant leadership

Workshops about management vs. servant leadership often include a “Chair Game” or as I like to call it “Management Chess”. Please see this YouTube video.

Agile Chair Game

From the video it is obvious that micromanagement isn’t supporting the team efficiency. In fact, it is the opposite. The manager becomes the blocking factor – the impediment that has to be removed.

That said, the manager – or the servant leader has an important role to play as long as he or she understand the role isn’t about managing people, but the environment around them.

A good servant leader serves the team by managing the product, removing impediments and trust the team to do what they do best.

There are many definitions of a “servant leader” and what the pillars of servant leadership are, and this poster is just one version. If you are interested in reading more about this topic there are many good books and articles available online.

Psychological Safety

To me you can’t talk about leadership without also talking about psychological safety. I’ve made blogposts about this topic before, but that is simply because it is a topic very dear to me.

As a leader you would like your team to perform well, and with that in mind Google in 2012 started Project Aristotle. The goal of the project where to identify the key factors for a successful team.

After interviewing 180 teams over a period of 2 years they couldn’t identify any patterns – there were no correlation between successful and non-successful teams!? No clear insights from looking into personal friendships, strong management, team structure, personal interests, gender etc.!? – Only when they started to look into group norms they identified what they believe to be the key to success.

Their findings showed that having an impact, feeling that your work is meaningful, having structure and clarity and dependability are all important for a successful team (keep that in mind leaders!), but what they saw as being a prerequisite was psychological safety. If a team doesn’t feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other they will never succeed as a team, and will never dare to be innovative and experiment.

You can read more about Googles Project Aristotle here.

For more information about safety as a prerequisite I can highly recommend having a look at Modern Agile.

Change is difficult

If we as leaders would like to change – or we want to make changes to a team, we need to understand that changing is difficult. It is not in our nature to change.

Some years back I attended a Modern Agile workshop with Joshua Kerievsky (If you don’t know him, start googling – he is awesome!). In the beginning of the workshop Joshua asked us to stand up and find another attendee, we hadn’t already spoken with and quickly introduce our self. After the quick introduction he told us to turn around so we were standing back to back to each other, and then he asked us to change 5 things about our appearance. Afterwards we were to turn around again and we would then see if we could identify the 5 things each of us had changed. Simple!

I remember I started by opening a button in my shirt. Then I think I opened my shoe, and maybe I also removed some jewelry. To be honest I can’t fully remember.

When we turned around both me and my partner tried to identify the changes, and I felt we did good.

Then Joshua asked us to turn around again, and once again change 5 things about our appearance. This time I removed both my shoes, and as far as I remember I also took of my belt and my watch. Again, I don’t recall the details.

We then turned around, and once again we tried to see if we could identify the changes.

After this Joshua again asked us to turn around – we knew were this was going, and several people from the group started to worry and got nervous, but we carried on. This time I also removed my socks, opened one more button in my shirt, and rolled up the sleeves.

Again, we turned around and tried to identify the changes.

Joshua then again asked us to turn around one more time, but knowing where this was going several people from the group started to complain, but Joshua insisted that we would all change 5 things about our appearance.

Honestly, I can’t remember what changed, but I remember it wasn’t 5 things – maybe one or two.

When Joshua then the fifth time asked us to turn around and change 5 more things about our appearance most of the group complained and refused to continue. People had reached the limit, but Joshua looked at us and asked why we couldn’t continue? “I can’t comfortably remove any more clothes” one of the other attendees replied and laughed, and most of the group agreed. Joshua simply replied: “I asked you to change – not remove”.

Around us on the tables were post-its we could have stuck to ourselves, pencils we could have put in the pockets or behind our ears, we could have worn our jackets, gloves and scarfs etc., but instead of adding we all removed items. Psychologically and in our brain, changes are associated with removing rather than adding.

This to me was a huge eye opener and something I always think back upon whenever changes are being discussed. I actively use this knowledge and exercise to remind myself why I might be resistant to a change but shouldn’t be – trying to remind myself that even though my instinct tells me that something will be removed the change might in fact add something. When I introduce changes to my teams I also now have a better understanding of their resistance enabling me to guide and support them in a better way.

Wrapping it all up

So, had I been able to conduct this workshop at the Agile ME 2020 and you attended, what learnings would I have liked us to achieve?

  • Everyone with a vision and ability to inspire can be a leader
  • Servant leadership is about supporting the team so they can focus on what they do best. Managing the environment not the people
  • Teams that feel safe will perform better and Be more innovative
  • By nature, we are resistant to change – be aware, set the good example and support the journey

The presentation prepared for the session is available at SlideShare:


  1. Hey Man, another great piece of wisdom.

    We missed you yesterday but thanks for sharing, I’ll be passing this around to my clients as they fight to find a way through the volatile uncertain complex ambiguous reality that is coronavirus 🙂

    My message will be clear..we can blitzkrieg a way forward but success will depend on how you lead and how ‘safe’ the team feels

    Thanks for sharing Maxwell and I would highly recommend Jim Collins’ teaching from his firing bullets approach (very much an iterative customer focused approach to strategic thinking and execution) to his level 5 leadership

    Ciao for now

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