The call for servant leadership and the need for followership

It makes sense that without followers there can be no leaders.  Likewise, without a high performing team, a leader can’t be successful.    As more and more Millennials enter the workforce, they’re not interested in following someone because they have a grandiose title, corner office, or long tenure – that’s more likely to garner distain than respect.

A recent study on Millennial workplace preferences found that 88% of participants prefer a collaborative work culture, 79% want a manager to serve as a coach or mentor, and that 64% want to help make the world a better place (Asghar, 2014).  Positional power and traditional hierarchies just don’t cut it anymore – 20 – 30 year old’s need something else. They want work with a purpose, and a leader who is invested in them – and their wider community.

Enter servant leadership.  While the concept sounds contemporary, servant leadership is actually an ancient philosophy that can trace its background to the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese philosophical and religious text, dating back to somewhere between 570 and 490 BC.  It is also found in other early texts such as the Indian treatise Arthashastra and the Bible, and was echoed in the teachings of leaders such as Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr.

Servant leaders put the needs of others first, and, in a work environment, they help people attain their highest performance potential. Servant leadership turns the power pyramid upside down: instead of people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.

Robert K. Greenleaf popularised the phrase ‘servant leader’ in 1977 after he queried traditional command-and-control notions of leadership and authority. He suggested there was a better approach to leadership, and advocated leaders serving others, such as employees, customers, and their community. Instead of focusing on self-promotion, Greenleaf recommended leaders make the needs of others a priority.

In his ‘The Servant as Leader’ essay, Greenleaf writes about the motivation of servant leaders:

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions (p. 22).

This construct sits nicely alongside the motivation of many Millennials, who value collaboration, creativity and community, and are inclined to forgo consumerism in favour of wanting to make a positive difference in the world.

Servant leadership in Agile

It stands to reason that to achieve successful outcomes, leaders must encourage others to succeed.  This is an underpinning principle of Agile, where leaders ‘meet the needs of their teams while modeling collaboration, trust, empathy and ethical use of power’ (“Agile Certified Practitioner,” 2016).

Within the Scrum framework – the most popular and most practiced Agile approach globally –  there are only three roles, one of which is ‘Scrum Master’.  The person filling this role is a facilitator and coach, helps remove impediments to progress, and is responsible for creating an environment in which the team can flourish.  Training material literally states that Scrum Masters act as servant leaders (Schwaber & Sutherland, 2016; “Who is Scrum Alliance?,” 2016) and their core objective is to ‘care for people’ and help the rest of the scrum team be successful.

In practice, this means:

  • leading by example
  • creating an environment of safety and support
  • listening without judgement
  • respecting individuals’ abilities
  • removing any obstacles to success,  and
  • helping the team work better together.

As part of my 2016 research into ‘How leaders enable the successful delivery of agile projects’, I interviewed 10 participants who had recently delivered, or were currently leading, an agile project.  A recurring theme was the importance of servant leadership, as evident in these sample quotes:

“In agile you become more of a servant leader and play a support role.  It’s not about you – it’s about your team and enabling your team to succeed.”  (Participant B – a Scrum Master in the education sector).

“Managers must sacrifice their vanity and forego their traditional power.  Agile leaders are servant leaders first, and put their team first.  The idea is to coach and support them, and do everything possible to help the team be successful.”  (Participant I – a banking Agile Delivery Lead).

I was surprised that these participants referred specifically to servant leadership without prompting, but their familiarity with the term, and practice, was a result of their Scrum Master training.

While not Scrum certified or agile trained, Participant F (an Agile Project Manager in the digital creative space) captured the concept of servant leadership when she explained the capabilities of her ideal leader:

I always find the best leaders are ones who don’t make the work their own.  They enable you, they empower you.  They’re there if you need them.  They’re there to support you. They want you to do a good job, but don’t do your job. They help you succeed.

While not directly naming servant leadership, this participant highlighted her preference for a manager to support and empower a team to realise their potential, and this is the cornerstone of the servant leadership approach.

The importance of followership

The flip side of leadership is followership.  Defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the ‘capacity or willingness to follow a leader’, followership theory is concerned with the characteristics and behaviours of individuals acting in relation to leaders (Archibald, 2015, para 5).

Naturally without followers there can be no leaders, and it has been suggested that leaders only really accomplish something by permission of their followers.  While personal experience supports this, it also makes sense that to achieve successful outcomes, leaders must encourage their teams to be successful. This requires managers to surrender their ego and place the needs of their team before themselves, thus acting in a servant leader capacity.

For these brave leaders to be truly successful, it is imperative that they create and nurture followers who are committed to their vision, are loyal and steadfastly supportive.  This is particularly important for agile leaders who no longer have traditional, positional power to rely on, and instead must develop relationships and build trust and support among their followers.

Likewise, good followers serve their team, their leaders, their organisation, and community.  In this regard they too are servant leaders – in their desire to ‘serve first’ and ensure other people’s requirements are met before their own. As such, the practice of servant leadership is as valid for followers as it is for leaders.

Wrap up

According to Statistics New Zealand, Millennials are now the single largest age group in New Zealand, and they’ll make up the majority of the labour force within five years.  These digital natives crave collaboration, innovation, flexibility and autonomy, and want work with purpose.  As such, Millennials need a different type of leadership from the traditional, transactional kind.  They require leaders who care, are authentic and ethical, and serve a wider network and need.

I believe that a move to servant leadership is unattainable for most ‘old school’ autocratic managers, who often run their teams by intimidation and fear.  These managers enjoy their hard-won status too much to give it up and become a servant-leader.

However, this group is waning.  As Baby Boomers retire they’re replaced by Generation Xers, who need to learn how to lead Generation Y – a generation that doesn’t value the traditional trappings of corporate success, and instead are motivated by lifestyle choices and making a positive difference.  Conversely, many of these Millennials are turning their backs on the ‘establishment’, creating their own businesses, being their own boss, and practicing socially-responsible leadership.

Regardless of the location or industry, when leaders shift their mindset and change their behaviours to serve others, they unlock the purpose and potential in those around them.  This results in higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees – regardless of their age, role or organisation.  And this benefits all of us.

Erika Barden, 1st NZ MALP graduate (with Distinction), 2017


Agile Certified Practitioner. (2016).   Retrieved from

Archibald, J. (2015, 06 January). Followership: Why it is important for leadership?   Retrieved from

Asghar, R. (2014). What millennials want in the workplace (and why you should start giving it to them).   Retrieved from

Schwaber, K., & Sutherland, J. (2016). The Scrum Guide: Scrum.Org.

Who is Scrum Alliance? (2016).   Retrieved from

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