The most advanced societies in history regulated and still regulate the power of their leaders through systems of checks and balances. That also translates in company structures and cultures.
When a leader doesn’t serve their team, but instead requires service, team members usually don’t communicate accurately with the leader or, for fear of being quoted, with each other. As scaling the responsibilities of leadership eventually overwhelms any individual, leaders are obliged to delegate accountability to subordinates via command and control, which restricts teams from responding autonomously to change and diminishes the creativity of problem solving approaches.
But Agile Organizations rely on self-organizing, autonomous teams and accurate communication which only happens between equals. Perhaps the most successful model for consensus decision-making is the Iroquois “Fire Keepers’ Consensus“, where if a critical, unanimous decision can’t be reached in a timely manner an appointed leader gets to make decisions.
Following this model leadership should only be supplied when a team requires it to achieve a decision in a timely manner. To assure this, the decision-making responsibilities are split between two roles, the role of the coach and the leader.
- If the rest of the team are unanimous about a decision, the leader role doesn’t get to decide. Servant leaders lead through influence, not authority.
- Only when the coach judges the team can’t reach a decision before the last responsible moment – then the leader decides. The squad abides by any such decision until and unless its other members unanimously overrule it.
- A leader can only lead their own squad. For the sake of autonomy, no leader is permitted to make decisions for any other team, which are fully capable of representing themselves.
Where a team is obliged to report into a manager, the decision only constitutes advice from the team. Where teams composit in a holarchic structure, there need be no intermediary managers, constituting a lean and agile organization.
Where an agreement must span more than one team, and disagreement or dependency cycles make this inefficient, teams align by team representation. To keep alignment relevant to current circumstances, they regularly ‘brighten the chain‘ to reconcile differencies. Servant leadership goes beyond simple checks and balances following a more proactive approach. Its essence is generating consensus.
In order to assure that leaders are passionately committed to the team’s success, they should be treated as directly responsible individuals. This places a leader under tension, on the one hand they represent a specific responsibility, on the other, they’re forced to lead through influence rather than authority. To succeed in the role requires vision, passion and empathy – all the attributes of a servant leader.