Servant Leader as Hat-Wearer

“Lids..” by Gunnshots is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

A recent conversation with a friend and colleague (Hi Steve!) got me thinking about roles as applied to servant leadership. Specifically, that some positional roles given to the leader are at best under tension, and sometimes in opposition to each other.

Multiple hats aren’t only a business problem

Of course, I have a song running through my head as I think this through – Amy Grant’s Hats, where she describes the tension of her life roles as a mother, a wife, and a worker:

It don’t stop
No, it’s never gonna stop
Why do I have to wear so many things on my head?
Hats!

All because I’m driven

To be the very best for you

Roles in Conflict

The specific example that Steve and I engaged was a set of roles we have defined in Agile Project Management. At our work, we define three roles:

Product OwnerResponsible for maximizing the value of the product and who is ultimately responsible and accountable for the end product that is built.
Scrum Master The servant-leader of the team who keeps track of user stories, plans sprints, and manages the backlog.  Escalates issues to both the Project Manager and the Project Owner
Project ManagerAssigned by the Project Owner; responsible for achieving the project objectives.  Manages according to time and budget.

In a graphical form, this sets up a three-way balance; a natural pushing, pulling, and reporting structure:

In a triangle, finding a balance point involves either direct experimentation, or a whole lot of math, since the point in which all are in balance is a function of relative weights. It isn’t like a scale, which balances two points. As you can see from the above diagram, achieving balance in this structure by positions can also be challenging.

In reality, the balance resolves itself in the project manager lending weight to the lighter side by supporting (or assuming) one of the two other roles because of missing elements in the project; either the product owner is not available for frequent consultation, or the scrum master need additional support. As such, a good project manager can bolster whichever axis requires attention.

Servant Leader as Multiple-Hats

This brings up the fundamental tension – why can a good project manager shift and slide roles for ultimate project capability?

My simple postulation is that a good project manager is a servant leader. They are not defined by the role given, but are defined by the higher elements of listening, empathy, healing, and awareness, using persuasion, conceptualization, and foresight to bring about growth and community through stewardship. In this way, they are not calling attention to themselves (hierarchical authority), but are instead working behind the scenes for the fundamental progress of the project.

I think this has broader implications for all servant leaders. Because of this ability to focus on the group as the highest goal, they can keep more than one role, more than one idea in their head, navigating the cognitive dissonance as a liminal hotspot without resolving it further.

Lesson from Paul

Paul, as a sent-one (or apostle) of Jesus had one goal – transformation of people into a relationship with Jesus. In this, he took on the role of a servant as well, even defining what this means:

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 The Message

I love how he expresses the fact that, although he didn’t take on the lifestyle of those he was serving, he engaged them in their own world on their terms – just as Jesus did. Separating himself and requiring others to meet his high standard, he would have not had the impact that this servant-leader life enables.

Summing it up

Multiple hats are a fact of life, and navigating them is best done with a higher goal in mind. Since servant leaders already have the higher goal of group development baked in, they can easily move between the roles.

And, they don’t have to have a big head about it…

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