The two links between servant-leadership and agile mindset: agency and values

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Many attempts at a definition of servant-leadership have been made. Whereas one big problem in organisations nowadays is the question whether leaders should be turned into servants, Greenleaf’s original work took the complementary perspective of the servant as a leader (1977). Although servant-leadership descriptions display typical transformational qualities, i.e., transforming the team into ever better versions of itself, it is sometimes separated in that it shifts attention from the organisational objectives and processes towards the people (Dutta & Khatri, 2017), or takes an indirect approach at achieving organisational objectives through development (and service to) the people (Hall, 1991, Northhouse, 2004, Stone et al., 2004). Servant-Leadership is frequently mentioned in the context of agile methodology and an agile mindset. The connection between the three terms deserves closer examination. Within the multitude of explanation approaches, two links emerge between servant-leadership and the agile mindset: the focus on individual agency and being based on principles, values, and beliefs. (Walker, 2003, Dutta & Khatri, 2017, Stoll, 2019)

Agency as a Link between Servant-Leadership and Agile Mindset

The definition of an agile mindset originated in the agile coaching industry and includes exuberant references to a multitude of different psychological constructs and theories (epistemic beliefs, growth mindset, promotion focus, resilience, self-efficacy, empathy, and personalty (Measey, 2015, Ellis, 2016). The context of agility is usually defined as highly dynamic, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), and requiring rapid learning or rapidly learning organisations (cf. Senge, 2006). The shift from understanding one’s surrounding as a complex adaptive system, as opposed to a complicated deterministic system, has emerged as a major theme in explanation approaches at agility (cf. Snowden & Boone, 2007). Some books, on the other hand, create the impression that agile mindset and growth mindset should be treated as synonyms (Measey, 2015). However, very few of these psychological attributions have been scientifically tested.

My own research on the nature of an agile mindset yielded two characteristic factors for the preference of traditional versus agile methodology: traditional methodology was highly correlated with stability-providing items, and agile mindset correlated with agency-enabling items. Thus, the “factors that enable individual agency in highly volatile and thus contingent situations” may be a good starting point for an operational definition (Stoll, 2019). The ideal leader in an agile environment would then be one who primarily fosters this individual agency. Many formulations that hint at fostering individual agency can be found within the body of research on servant-leadership:

  • “Followers became ‘healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous’”, Servant-Leadership is about the leader being a servant first. A servant leader guides his replacement, making the subordinates increasingly autonomous and wise. (Greenleaf, 1997)
  • “Nurtures trusting and genuine relationship with followers and lays foundation for a supportive as well as positive work environment” (Wong and Davey, 2007)
  • One who invests himself or herself in enabling others, in helping the to be and do their best (Hall, 1991)
  • Leaders who lead an organisation by focussing on their followers, such that the followers are the primary concern, and the organisational concerns are peripheral (Patterson, 2003)
  • Attentive to the concerns of their followers; … take care of them and nurture them (Northouse, 2004)
  • Assisting the growth, development and overall well-being of organizational employees (Stone et al., 2004)
  • Shifting authority to those who are being led (Perry and Mankin, 2007)
  • Helping them [others’ needs] develop professionally as well as personally (Lussier and Achua, 2007)

(Excerpted from Dutta and Kathri, 2017)

Many of the attempts at definition of servant-leadership in the table above hint at servant-leadership as an approach to increase the individual agency and self-efficacy of employees. Self-efficacy as a concept has been introduced by Bandura (1982) as “how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations”. Based on this concept, positive psychology emerged, that focuses on promoting individual strengths rather than eradicating weaknesses (Seligman, 1991; Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). According to Sen (1985), agency freedom can be defined as “what a person is free to do and achieve in pursuit of whatever goals or values he or she regards as important.” Thus, any organisational approach at an individual agency must honour individual goals and values. Thus, an organisational context with high agency depends on a good fit between leadership and employee values as well as job-to-be done and individual goals. Alkire (2005) distinguishes 4 aspects of human agency: self-direction, autonomy, self-efficacy, and self-determination. The discussion about servant-leadership should thus focus on enhancing the opportunity of the people to orient and direct themselves within the organisation, foster their autonomy (being able to act widely independent from others), their self-efficacy (how effective they can operate in their environment), and self-determination (the ability to base their choices within the organisational context on their own motivation).

Values as a Link between Servant-Leadership and Agile Mindset

Although both agile mindset and the Big Five personality traits contain the concept “openness”, there is mounting evidence that advises against a personality-component of an agile mindset. In my own research, of all the 10 subdimensions of the Big Five personality traits, only conscientious-orderliness weakly correlated with the preference for traditional vs. agile management methodology. This preference is expected, as creating order emerges a major theme in traditional management approaches, but plays a less pronounced role in transformational approaches. Likewise, the assessment of the flexibility of one’s own ability along the axes static-dynamic and flexible-inflexible, which are the hallmark of a growth mindset, did not correlate with an individual preference for traditional or agile methodology. The basis for an agile mindset appears to be located between the world of personality traits and the concrete decisions that guide human behaviour in specific situations: in the factors that drive the complex sensemaking of our world.

The three things most often referenced when discussing an agile mindset are the four values of the Manifesto for agile Software Development (individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; responding to change over following a plan), the 12 attached principles, and the 5 Scrum Values (courage, focus, commitment, respect, and openness). Likewise, Walker (2003) argues that whereas earlier leadership theories deal with particular behaviours of the leaders, servant leadership focuses on their underlying principles, values and beliefs. Thus, servant-leadership and agile mindset share another commonality: the shift away from recipes or methodology toward the underlying guiding and motivating factors.

The question remains, which values of leaders are conducive to organisational efficacy. When investigating the influence of CEO values and leadership on middle manager exchange behaviours, the relationship between middle-managers was strengthened when CEOs exhibited self-transcendent/other-oriented values as opposed to self-enhancing values (Liden, Fu, Liu, & Song, 2016). Servant-leadership emphasizes those values that enhance personal organisational support (POS; Eisenberger et al, 1986), which in turn has been linked to positive employee engagement, performance, commitment, and organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB; Newman et al, 2012). A focus on the needs and the development of employees enhances person-organisation fit, which has been identified as an important factor for turnover intentions (Kristof-Brown et al., 2005; Jehanzeb, 2020).

Uncertainty as a Driver of both Agile Mindset and Servant-Leadership

To summarize, two thematic shifts can be observed in both servant-leadership and agile mindset: A shift from stability-providing towards agency-enabling factors, and from particular management behaviour towards the underlying principles, values and beliefs. This shift appears reasonable in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) situations: One of the hallmarks of a complex adaptive system is that its specific behaviour is unpredictable in advance, but an explanation can be found retrospectively. This unpredictability makes it impossible to specify algorithmic if-then recommendations for complex leadership situations in advance. Or more seriously, inviting survivorship-bias, action recommendations that have been set in advance may yield results, but it is unlikely that they will be optimally aligned with the future change of the organisational context.

Leadership must thus concentrate on those qualities that make it possible that these recipes can be found spontaneously in the multitude of different contexts and situations that arise in daily business in a complex world. For human beings, these underlying factors include values, principles, beliefs, epistemic views, problem solving skills, and the components of positive psychology such as individual strengths, self-efficacy, empathy, and emotional intelligence. Furthermore, decisions need to be decentralised, as the organisational performance will slow down if day-to-day decisions in the VUCA world have to be made via chain of command. This shift ultimately defines the new leadership challenge in organisations: enhancing the individual agency of every member of an organisation, along with providing the authority to decide and act accordingly.


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