What is a Servant Leader?

What is a Servant Leader?

Servant Leader is a well-known term among Agilists, but the reality is it is often misconstrued.

As of 2021, the official Scrum Guide refers to the Scrum Master as ‘Leader’ rather than ‘Servant Leader’, reasoning that Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and in turn the larger organization.

The semantics of leader terminology can be the subject of much robust conversation.  Terms such as manager, leader, servant leader, transformational leader and transcend leader are all (within reason) interchangeable. However, bear in mind this is dependent on the context of how the word is employed.

Using the term ‘Servant Leader’ is completely acceptable if being used in the context of serving the mission and the enterprise’s outcome as opposed to employing the leader as subservient to the people in their charge.  This is where the idea of the servant leader can be somewhat misinterpreted.  Take the example of parent-child dynamic – we are not there to serve our child but rather to serve the mission of growing them into capable and self-responsible human beings.

Often with children, we have to enforce certain behaviours and actions which, as I am sure all parents can attest to are not well received by our young ones.  But this is all part of the journey in growing our offspring to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be.  Similarly, we are not there to serve our team members.  We are there to serve the mission of achieving our collective goals and reaching our desired conclusions.

To emphasize my point, I quote the Founder & CEO of Wells Fargo, Mr Adam Stumpf, who in response to a question regarding lessons, regrets and learnings of leadership said the following – “I was too obsessive being a servant leader. Instead, I could have been a good leader. Instead of confronting people, I find ways to cover for them. I was willing to do their working thinking I was a servant. That hurt the organization”.

As leaders, we need to help, guide, nurture,encourage, and uplift our teams which we accomplish by being leaders, not servants.  But not at the sacrifice of the mission, high performance or even winning.  But rather in the service of those outcomes.  Keep in mind there is an unquestionable distinction between Leader and Servant Leader, and your awareness of this can be the difference between failure and success.

No other role epitomizes the difference between leader and role player than that of an Orchestra Conductor.  The conductor’s job is that of three – employing the vision for the symphony to create, engaging the best musicians for all instruments, and having them perform their individual best in harmony according to the written symphony.  If the horn or flute musicians start missing their marks, then the conductor will correct and bring them back into the harmony.  If they continually miss their marks, the conductor replaces those musicians with others who can perform at the required level.  The key point is the conductor does not put down their baton, climb from the podium and play the instrument for the mark-missing musician, for if they did the rest of the orchestra would quickly fall off the sync and fail.


As the leader, you are the conductor, not the musician. Even though you are leading the musicians, you do not play music. You lead the people playing the music. And if you do it right, it will be a spectacular symphony.