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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Jones

Agile Workshop - Collaboration Does Not Mean Compromise

In my coaching sessions I have observed how project managers, working with Agile Product Groups sometimes seek to reach a compromise between the participants in the group rather than produce a solution that most exactly meets an agreed set of objectives.

In discussion with these project managers it became evident to me that they had not been educated in Servant Leadership. The concept of Servant Leadership as a management style has been widely practised since Robert Greenleaf first described it in the 1970’s in his book The Servant as a Leader, but it’s relevance as a Project Management style has readily gained an appreciative audience amongst Lean and Agile practitioners.

So, what is Servant Leadership?

"The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" - Robert Greenleaf

The Greenleaf Centre for Servant-Leadership identified 10 characteristics of a good leader and I have put these in the context of project management.

1. Listening: Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and decision-making skills. While these are also important skills for the servant-leader, they need to be reinforced by a deep commitment to listening intently to others. The “servant-leader” project manager seeks to identify the will of a group and helps clarify that will. He or she seeks to listen receptively to what is being said (and not said!). Listening also encompasses getting in touch with one’s own inner voice and seeking to understand what one’s body, spirit, and mind are communicating. Listening, coupled with regular periods of reflection, is essential to the growth of the servant-leader. Tools such as the “15-minute FOTO”, as described in Mike Burrows book, Agendashift.

2. Empathy: The servant-leader strives to understand and empathise with others. People need to be accepted and recognised for their special and unique spirits. One assumes the good intentions of co-workers and does not reject them as people, even while refusing to accept their behaviour or performance. The most successful servant-leaders are those who have become skilled empathetic listeners.

3. Healing: Learning to heal is a powerful force for transformation and integration. One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and others. Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is a part of being human, servant- leaders recognise that they have an opportunity to “help make whole” those with whom they come in contact and project a willingness to accept other peoples’ viewpoints even if they are at odds with ones’ own.

4. Awareness: General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Making a commitment to foster awareness can be scary—you never know what you may discover. Awareness also aids one in understanding issues involving ethics and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position

5. Persuasion: Another characteristic of servant-leaders is a primary reliance on persuasion, rather than using one’s positional authority. The servant-leader seeks to convince others, rather than coerce compliance. This particular characteristic offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant-leadership. The servant-leader is effective at building consensus within groups.

6. Conceptualisation: Servant-leaders seek to nurture their abilities to “dream great dreams.” The ability to look at a problem (or an organization) from a conceptualising perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. For many managers this is a characteristic that requires discipline and practice. The traditional manager is focused on the need to achieve short-term operational goals. The manager who wishes to also be a servant-leader must stretch his or her thinking to encompass broader- based conceptual thinking. Within organisations, conceptualisation is also the proper role of boards of trustees or directors. Unfortunately, boards can sometimes become involved in the day-to-day operations (something that should always be discouraged!) and fail to provide the visionary concept for an organisation. Trustees need to be mostly conceptual in their orientation, staffs need to be mostly operational in their perspective, and the most effective leaders and project managers probably need to develop both perspectives. Servant-leaders are called to seek a delicate balance between conceptual thinking and a day-to-day focused approach and a drive for continuous improvement.

7. Foresight: Great project managers get better with age and experience because their ability to foresee the outcome of any action has been developed by always considering “Lessons Learnt” from previous projects. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant-leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future. It is also deeply rooted within the intuitive mind.

8. Stewardship: Stewardship can best be described as “holding something in trust for another” much like you hear farmers talk about not owning their land but managing it and handing it over in great shape for the next generation. Stewardship is foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others. It also emphasises the use of transparency and persuasion rather than hiding issues and exerting their will without considering others.

9. Commitment to the growth of people: Servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, the servant-leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within his or her organisation, whether that be the project group or members of the value stream. The servant-leader recognises the tremendous responsibility to do everything within his or her power to nurture the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of those in the value chain relevant to his or her project. In practice, this can include (but is not limited to) concrete actions such as making available funds for personal and professional development, taking a personal interest in the ideas and suggestions from everyone, encouraging people (of all levels) involvement in decision making.

10. Building a sense of community: The servant-leader needs to act like a sporting coach and impress on the team members the impact they make not just to their project but to everyone in the organisation or value stream; much like a football team’s contribution to a local community.

I have found it useful to discuss this management style with project team members as part of the kick-off process, and, whilst you must not expect immediate results, a persistence to develop these skills in every team member can provide a powerful force for success. It really does help avoid conflict in teams.

For those recruiting project managers it is incumbent on them to ascertain if those applying can demonstrate these skills.

As always, I welcome your comments and if you wish to discuss the topic more fully or seek coaching on the subject in applying certain tools to develop servant leadership call me on

+44 7799 544 973 or email me on

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