Last week, I answered a reader question about what scrum masters are worth, financially speaking. This gave rise to another reader question that I’ll tackle this week, and it has to do with the idea of the so-called servant leader.
Now, I usually follow sort of a FIFO approach for reader questions. But I’m making an exception here because several people asked me the same question in the immediate aftermath of that post.
What do you have against the term “servant leader,” anyway?
They asked that because I threw some shade at the term in last week’s post, using the words “loathe” and “detest” to describe my opinion of it. So I suppose it’s fair for people to follow up asking what my deal is. And I should probably respond.
The truth is, up until now, my revulsion had been mainly visceral and subconscious. But the exercise of outlining this post has helped me put more thought out bullet points behind a better thesis.
First Things First: Servant Leader, The Accepted Definition
Before I go any further, let me briefly explain the term itself. This section will be journalism, rather than op-ed, as I explain the term to anyone unfamiliar with it.
A servant leader is, tautologically, one who practices servant leadership. And servant leadership was defined in an interesting essay back in 1970, I believe, by a gentleman named Robert Greenleaf.
This essay is categorically not about line management of knowledge workers in the enterprise, nor was it about the enterprise at all. Instead, it was a journey through ethical, moral, and even metaphysical considerations contrasting Messianic (servant leader) leadership impulses with will-to-power (autocratic) leadership impulses. Greenleaf does not explicitly mention God, but he touches on faith, parables, societal ethics, and even, without irony, concepts like telepathy.
Eventually, the corporate world discovered this and does what the corporate world does — adopted it as the inspiration for a management fad. It interpreted the historical, Taylor-esque corporate pyramid as the autocratic force in the corporate world. And it defined a new, Messianic analog in which management exists to empower, rather than boss around, the line level employees.
So fast forward to the present, and “servant leader” is an in-crowd signaling term that represents “manager as enabler” rather than “manager as dictator.”