Servant Leadership Defined For Organizational Leaders And Agile Project Managers – By Dr. Michael D. Ikona, Psy.D., PCC, PMP, RMP, ACP

During my career, I have been fortunate to help organizations make the transition from traditional project management methodologies to Agile. Executives, IT Professionals, and Project Management Professionals often ask me what part of the transition is most challenging. My answer, based on my own professional experience, is an Agile Coach’s ability to effectively utilize Servant Leadership with their teams. Equally important is an organizations’ understanding and support of this leadership style. When working with these organizations, I take time to educate leaders on the concepts behind Servant Leadership and how/why it is tailor made for Agile. Without Servant Leadership, Agile is ineffective and can cause much more harm than good.

When becoming an Agile Certified Professional (ACP), there were just a couple pages in my study books, and perhaps an hour of instruction, on Servant Leadership. The Servant Leadership concept was discussed purely from the perspective of passing the ACP exam. This was fantastic for studying. However, this very limited foundation of Servant Leadership principles is inadequate for the application of concepts in the real world.  I believe Agile Coaches need additional information on Servant Leadership so they can spend time incorporating the intricacies into their own leadership style.

The purpose of this article, which is actually an excerpt of my dissertation/portfolio, is to provide an expanded definition of Servant Leadership for Business Executives, Change Management Professionals, and Agile Coaches based on empirical research. So, without further ado, here we go!

The concept of Servant Leadership was introduced in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf (Boone & Makhani, 2012, 83). When describing Servant Leadership, Greenleaf (1970) indicates “the servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. The conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first … [servant leaders help followers] grow healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants” (as cited by Boone & Makhani, 52 2012, p. 83). Rude defined Servant Leadership as “distancing oneself from using power, influence and position to serve self, and instead gravitating to a position where these instruments are used to empower, enable and encourage those who are within one’s circle of influence” (Rude, 2003 in Nwogu, 2004, p.2). It should be noted “the servant leadership style has been compared to other leadership approaches such as charismatic and transformational leadership as well as leader-member exchange, but what differentiates servant leadership is the moral objective of serving others (Mayer, Bardes, & Piccolo, 2008, p. 181).

According to Boone and Makhani (2012), there are five ‘attitudes’ which are essential for the servant leader. These attitudes include: (1) ambitious and optimistic vision, (2) listening intently to all organizational employees, (3) identifying and maximizing employee talents by committing to their success, (4) giving away their power to constituents through delegation and empowerment, and (5) building a community centered on shared values and vision (p. 87).

Researchers Liden, Wayne, Zhao, and Henderson (2008) identified the following nine Servant Leadership dimensions: (1) emotional healing or sensitivity to others’ personal concerns, (2) creating community value, (3) conceptual organizational skills to assist others, (4) empowering and encouraging others to solve problems, (5) helping others grow and succeed through mentoring, (6) putting subordinates first, (7) behaving ethically and with integrity at all times, (8) building relationships by genuinely understanding and supporting others in the organization, and (9) working as a servant first, even when self-sacrifice is required (p. 161-177).

True Servant Leaders do not lead from the top; instead they put their organization and people ahead of themselves while utilizing, empathy, determination, listening skills, foresight, vision, flexibility, passion, humility, and learning skills. Servant Leaders work diligently to gain trust (a prerequisite of Servant Leadership) while helping others reach their full potential (Burrell 53 & Grizzell, 2010, p. 16-17). Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, identifies many of these skills when defining Level 5 Leadership. Moreover, Collins reveals the similarities between Level 5 leadership and Servant Leadership when he indicated “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of guiding a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves” (p. 21).

Since Greenleaf introduced Servant Leadership in 1970, there have been numerous research studies on the benefits of Servant Leadership. In 2004, Ehrhart verified servant leadership accounted for positive variances above the Leader Member Exchange (LMX) and transformational leadership in the following key areas: (1) employee commitment +5%, (2) job satisfaction +7%, (3) perceived support by supervisors +4%, and (4) procedural justice +8% (p. 61-94).

Additionally, in 2012, David Jones concluded through his research Servant Leadership: (1) reduced turnover and absenteeism which improved organizational performance, (2) improved customer satisfaction and sales due to customer focus, (3) increased trust which tied specifically to employee development and growth, and (4) empowered employees were more productive, which streamlined decision making, which improved customer relationships (p. 26-31).

It should be pointed out there are researchers who have expressed criticism about Servant Leadership. Smith, Montagno, and Kuzmenko (2004) argue servant leadership is better for slower changing, or static business environments (p. 88). Additionally, although there have been dozens of studies on Servant Leadership, some researchers argue there is not enough “scientific evidence to justify its widespread acceptance at this point in time” (Russell & Stone, 2002, p. 155).

However, it is hard to argue with the overwhelming success many organizations have had while using Servant Leadership. “Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, and TDIndustries have developed and implemented a dynamic servant leadership culture within their organizations. All three of these organizations are leaders in their industries and these organizations demonstrate servant leadership in concrete terms in the areas that include pay administration, employee empowerment, training, and employee development” (Jones, 2012, p. 40). Moreover, these three organizations are consistently named as one of Forbes 100 Best Companies to Work For (Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002, p. 62).

Please feel free to comment on why Servant Leadership as essential as an Organizational Leader or Agile Coach.

Thank you for reading.

Dr. Mike – –


Boone, L. & Makhani, S. (2012). Five Necessary Attitudes of a Servant Leader. Review Of Business, 33(1), 83-96

Burrell, D., and Grizzell, B. C. 2010. Do You Have the Skills of a Servant-Leader? Nonprofit World, (6), 16-17.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Ehrhart, M. G. (2004). Leadership and procedural justice climate as antecedents of unit_level organizational citizenship behavior. Personnel Psychology, 57(1), 61-94.

Jones, D. (2012). Does Servant Leadership Lead to Greater Customer Focus and Employee Satisfaction? Business Studies Journal, 4(2), 21-35

Jones, D. (2012). Servant Leadership’s Impact on Profit, Employee Satisfaction, and Empowerment within the Framework of a Participative Culture in Business. Business Studies Journal, 4(1), 35-49 Liden, R., Wayne, S., Zhao, H. & Henderson, D. (2008). Servant leadership: Development of a multidimensional measure and multi-level assessment. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(2), 161-177.

Nwogu, O. (2004). The Role of Follower Self-esteem, Emotional Intelligence and Attributions on Organizational Effectiveness.

Russell, R. F., & Stone, A. (2002). A review of servant leadership attributes: Developing a practical model. Leadership and Qrganization Development Journal, 23(3), 145-157.

Sendjaya, S. & Sarros, J. (2002). Servant Leadership: Its Origin, Development, and Application in Organizations. Journal of Leadership and Organization Studies, 9(4), 57-64

Smith, B. N., Montagno, R. V., & Kuzmenko, T. N. (2004). Transformational and servant leadership: content and contextual comparisons. Journal of Leadership and Qrganizationai Studies, 10(4), 80-91.

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